With a whir and a rat-a-tat-tat, a blue-and-orange robot kicked off production of Boeing’s 777X at the company’s Everett, Washington plant on Monday. The laser-guided machine, made by supplier MTorres, drilled a hole in a carbon-fiber wing spar, then drove in a fastener. A handful of employees guided the robotic arm, one of many ways the aerospace giant is radically changing its manufacturing process with the 777X.
“This is a change in the history of how we manufacture, how we assemble and how we fly our aircraft,” 777/777X operations vice president Jason Clark told a couple hundred employees and journalists on hand for the ceremony.
The shift in production methods boosts safety and quality, Clark said. “As we transition forward, toward a production system that’s more automotive styled or based, we really want to focus on those things that are going to get our mechanics into the operating mode versus the actual drilling and filling,” which can take a physical toll on workers.
Clark declined to say how much Boeing expects to cut production costs with the increased automation.
“The targeted automation is for those areas where it makes the most sense,” he said.
Of the four stations in the spar assembly building, only the first, where the MTorres robot sits, is fully automated.
Boeing produces the 105-foot-long spars nearby in its $1 billion composite wing center (CWC), where automated fiber placement robots also create stringers and skin panels. The building can support a production rate of 8.3 aircraft a month, said Perry Moore, who heads the 777X wing integrated product team.
Production remains on schedule, and so far, the program team has had to make few design changes, 777X chief project engineer and vice president Terry Beezhold said.
Schedules call for the start of final assembly next year, followed by flight tests in 2019 and delivery in 2020, he added.
Dubai’s Emirates Airline plans to take delivery of the first airplane, leapfrogging launch customer Lufthansa. The Dubai-based airline’s order for 150 777Xs dominates the airplane’s backlog, which stands at 340 firm orders.
Qatar Airways has ordered 60 of the long-haul jets, and Etihad has ordered 25. The Gulf carriers make up 69 percent of the 777X’s order book.
However, the “Big Three” Gulf carriers have hit some turbulence, which could threaten existing widebody orders at Airbus and Boeing.
Profits at Emirates dramatically dropped, and the airline could find itself with more seats than it can fill. Etihad Airways has struggled with financial problems, made worse by bad investments in Alitalia Airlines and AirBerlin. Qatar Airways faces a regional blockade that has hurt its passenger business.
Middle East airlines plan to boost capacity by about 8 percent per year over the next five years, largely by adding widebody airplanes, according to an analysis by Canaccord Genuity.
“While traffic currently supports the planned fleet expansions, considering the significant exposure to the Boeing 777 (including the 777X) as well as the A350 and the A380, any slowdown in the traffic in this region would have an outsize impact on the delivery schedules at both Airbus and Boeing, in our view,” Canaccord analyst Ken Herbert wrote in the report released in September.
Given the Gulf carriers’ emphasis on range and comfort, the 777X appears a natural fit for their fleets, which already include dozens of classic 777s. The 777X encompasses two models: the 777-8, which can carry 350 seats and fly to a range of more than 9,300 nautical miles; and the 777-9, which will carry about 400 seats and fly more than 8,200 miles. Boeing specifications show the aircraft will operate 20 percent more efficiently on a seat-mile basis than the current-generation 777s.