Farnborough Air Show

In Supplier Choices And Production Processes, Boeing Carefully Manages Risks To 777

 - July 11, 2014, 7:20 AM
Final assembly flow rates for the 777 now stand at 47 days, down from 48 days last year and 87 days in 1997.

Containing risk represents one of the hallmarks of Boeing’s proven approach to the 777 program, and its agreements last month with five key Japanese partners to perform major work on the 777X didn’t deviate far from historic form. But while the consortium of Japanese companies known as Japan Aircraft Industries won responsibility for essentially the same portion of the 777X airframe–21 percent–that it carries on the current version of the 777, Boeing didn’t necessarily exhibit a light touch in its negotiations with the group of long-time structural suppliers.

However, one might wonder how Boeing’s “partnering for success” approach to supply chain management influenced the negotiations, given that dual sourcing in those cases likely would have proved cost prohibitive or simply unavailable, while a switch in suppliers might also have threatened to disrupt the program. “It would have been really hard to move the wings from Mitsubishi or move the Spirit [AeroSystems] stuff or some of the major body panels out of Japan,” conceded Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of contracts and supplier strategy Bob Noble. “Now, that having been said, we have moved that kind of structure in the past.

“The great part about the 777X was that our partners in Japan took a very hard look at manufacturing processes and what they might be able to do…It would not have been outside the realm of possibility for that work to, perhaps, have moved, but we never had that conversation because it wasn’t necessary.”

That doesn’t mean changes won’t prove necessary in the future, noted Noble. However, major supplier moves on the 777X appear unlikely. “On the 777X, we’re getting close to seeing decisions, and I’m not expecting anything radical.”

Low-Risk NAP

Boeing, of course, would rather not introduce risk into the program by instituting drastic changes. Even in the case of the landing gear, it chose to make the change from United Technologies to Heroux-Devtek well in advance of the transition to production of the 777X, expected to start in 2017. “So there’s no risk to the 777X program, which was wholly by design,” said Noble.

Much of the responsibility for considering and managing 777 program risk in general falls on vice president and general manager Elizabeth Lund who, during a briefing just before the Farnborough show at Boeing’s offices in Everett, Washington, cited a concept called NAP, or “new assembly process,” as one way build changes in the current 777 will translate into less risk on the 777X. The new process, she said, involves the 777 empennage, built at Boeing’s plant in Frederickson, Washington.

“Instead of building the parts like we do today, with our big monument tooling, we’re converting the build to a 787 line, which is a little bit more like a horizontal build line except the empennage pieces are vertical,” said Lund. “It’s much more use of robotics; it’s a streamlined tool where your empennage moves down line and we get significant produceability benefits and it continues our cost-reduction activities. We needed to do that for the 777X anyway.

“Otherwise,” she continued, “we would have had to duplicate 100 percent of the tooling…It’s sort of another example of us taking the risk out of the 777X transition, getting some benefits sooner, having the backup plan of the existing tooling and then rolling into the production system.”

More Automation

Meanwhile, decisions to automate in areas such as wing painting and drilling/riveting with a tool called a Flex Track has helped Boeing lower its final assembly flow time from 48 to 47 days this year. Data on the automated spray method shows a 45-percent reduction in safety accidents, a 63-percent reduction in unit hours and an 80-percent reduction in quality “rework” hours since the company started using the method on all of its 777 wings, noted Lund.

Now Boeing (Chalet B6) is preparing to install a set of drilling and riveting machines called FAUB, or “fuselage automated upright build,” currently under testing and development at a high-bay space Boeing has rented in Anacortes, Washington. FAUB employs automated guided robots designed by KUKA Robotics to drill and fill more than 60,000 fasteners that attach the panels that comprise the 777’s forward and aft body sections.

Today, Boeing mechanics positioned on both sides of the fuselage perform the task by hand, a repetitive and tiring job that places a lot of stress on their shoulders and hands. The new process will use automated guided vehicles (AGVs) to move the components of FAUB into position, including work stands, fuselages and the robotic arms that will drill and insert fasteners. The robots, positioned inside and outside the fuselage, not only drill the holes but act as a bucking bar and perform dynamic riveting.

“We believe that we can cut our flow by more than half,” said Lund. “We believe we’ll see a 50-percent reduction in safety incidents, quality improvements as well as flow reduction. At least those are our targets.”

Boeing plans to locate FAUB in a new building at Everett, allowing it to free more space for the 777X. Lund said Boeing hasn’t set a firm “cutover” commitment but, if testing goes well in Anacortes, FAUB could start operation sometime next year.


It is quite clear that Boeing has learned from its 787 supplier sourcing mistakes. This bodes well for the 777X program going forward.

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