The production system that promises to support a reduction in final assembly times for the Boeing 737 from 10 to nine days this year should become still more efficient with the introduction of a new automated panel assembly line (PAL) by early 2015. Built by Mukilteo, Washington-based Electroimpact, the PAL fastens stringers to wing skin panels at twice the rate Boeing now can manage using the current process at the 737 plant in Renton, Washington. Electroimpact designed the panel with an array of lasers that “see” the surface without touching it, allowing it to follow the panel curvature or contour. The process improves accuracy, consistency and “repeatability,” according to Boeing.
Boeing’s existing machines in Renton install about 4,000 fasteners and mechanics install roughly 2,000, often requiring them to contort their bodies into unnatural positions. The automated system not only eliminates the need to perform fatigue-inducing acrobatics, but it also promises to reduce repetitive motion injuries.
In Renton, Boeing has installed the major foundations to support some 70 machine beds per line. Once installed on the factory floor, the PAL will load parts using a monorail system rather than overhead cranes, eliminating wait time between positions.
The PAL has already arrived at Boeing’s site in Everett, Washington, and plans call for crews to transfer it by train and barge to Renton “over the coming days.” According to Boeing Commercial Airplanes director of 737 business operations Beth Schryer, the new line will “ramp up” over time starting next year, initially operating simultaneously with the existing line.
Boeing estimates the PAL will cut flow time by 33 percent, defects by 66 percent, factory “footprint” by 50 percent and injuries by 50 percent.
The PAL promises to account for a big part of Boeing’s effort to raise its production rate from 42 to 47 a month by 2017, at roughly the same time it starts its transition from building current-generation 737s to the new 737 Max.
To make room for the Max, Boeing has begun clearing space in the final assembly building that now houses the east line. “A key foundation of our overall strategy, plan and approach on the Max is to dedicate a final assembly line to the Max as we bring it into our system,” said Schryer. “It has longer flows at the beginning than the NG and [as] we ramp it up, we will do that on a dedicated line, keeping our NG lines running as they are running today.” Eventually, the Max line will run at the same pace as those dedicated to the NG, she added.
Plans call for the Max line—the central line of the three final assembly lines in Renton—to incorporate three positions, where Boeing would build the initial examples as well as perform flight-test installations and other miscellaneous items. Boeing has also begun the process of building a new systems installation tool, where it loads and stuffs the fuselage sections with systems before they go to wing-to-body join, adjacent to the west line. In the process, Boeing plans to convert to a pulse system, creating what Schryer called an even more lean build. The process will involve three pulses on three separate lines, meaning it will hold nine fuselages.