Boeing has taken a big leap into the new economy, where much of its factory work will be done by automated machines and robots. Some sections of the Everett facility will have massive machines but only a handful of people working alongside them.
When Seattle Times reporter Dominic Gates visited Boeing’s massive new Everett facility last month, we watched a 110-foot long wing panel for new 777X jet traveling across the factory hangar while a small handful of workers walked alongside it, watching out for any risk of bumps or collision.
The “spotters” job was merely to accompany the panel’s platform as it cruised along tracks embedded in the concrete floor and slid into the giant autoclave where the piece would cure to hardness.
Until the automated system for moving around these big wing parts is perfected, the director of 777X wing fabrication said they need to have four people watching it. But. Darrell Chic added, “the intent is to work our way to autonomous and allow the navigation system to do its thing.”
Autonomous. Meaning humans would not be required to guide it.
The 777X Composite Wing Center is Boeing’s most recent venture in advanced manufacturing, and heralds a major step toward a future where most of the aircraft factory work will be done by machines and robots.
Once the wing was inside the giant pressurized oven, Gates noted that a lone operator was left at a computer station to push a button. Lights flashed, and a large noise fired up sounded.
Slowly, a 55-ton circular door closed in place forming an airtight seal for the seven-hour baking cycle.
Eric Lindblad, the newly appointed head of the 777X program, explained that having machines load the wing parts on their own is safer and more precise. There’s simply no room for error inside the oven: When the long stiffening rods are baked in the autoclave, they’ll go in six at a time with only 3 inches of clearance between them. Any contact could damage a piece before it even has the chance to cure.
The only necessary human will be the person at the computer.
Ramping up automation
This shift toward automation was already underway at Boeing’s older local plants. At the Frederickson plant, robots do 80% of hole-drilling for 787 and 777 tails. In Auburn, the engine heat shields for 787 and 777 jets are fabricated by robots, and automated machinery uses lasers to clean the dies used for shaping those shields.
Boeing’s most productive factory (in Renton) has replaced the traditional fixtures used to secure wings in place during assembly with smaller, automated equipment as it gears up for an unprecedented output of 52 planes per month by 2018.
One exception to the trend toward full automation is Boeing’s process for crafting four of the 43 stringers, the rods that stiffen each 777X wing. These four are primarily made by hand owing to their complex shape.
A half-dozen workers lined up on each side of an elongated stringer tool, positioning 4-foot-long bands of textile-like carbon fiber. When each piece of fabric had been laid out by hand, a machine from overhead lowered and pressed down to secure the material for curing.
“For this particular shape … it turns out to be more cost-effective to do it this way,” Lindblad said
Mark Summers, head of technology at the U.K. government’s Aerospace Technology Institute, noted that the expanded automation will enable Boeing and Airbus to increase production rates without adding employees.
“Jobs will not be lost, but there will not be so many new jobs created,” Summers explained during a Farnborough Air Show in July. “I don’t see it as an impact on the current aerospace workforce. There’s just fewer jobs in aerospace in the future.” Summer also predicts that blue-collar machinist jobs will increasingly be replaced with “more technologically focused” positions operating the machines.
However nervous about the future machinists get in light of the new technology, Pete Goldsmith (who coordinates automation-technology projects) claims that he got “a universally positive reaction” from mechanics at both Airbus and Boeing when he installed equipment to do repetitive riveting.
“That’s a job that beats you up all day every day,” Goldsmith said. “We were replacing an operation that was physically very debilitating for the mechanics.” Meanwhile, Boeing employee Gary Laws, who has worked as a mechanic for more than twenty years, says automation makes his tasks much easier.
And if the Northwest wants new work in aerospace, he sees no choice but to ride the wave of change.
“It’s the way it has to be,” said Laws. “Technology is obviously going to be the future.”
Currently, the 777’s wing parts are made largely by machinists in Auburn and Frederickson, then transferred to Everett where they are assembled into the final wing by machinists. While Boeing doesn’t offer a detailed breakdown of employment figures, this work clearly provides hundreds of jobs.
With the new 777X, that process will change significantly. But it does stay here in the Seattle region.
Manufacturing experts remind us that robots cannot do it all. After these 777X skin panels, spars and stringers are fabricated in the wing center, Boeing transports them to the Everett factory building where mechanics assemble the pieces into a basic wing box, then add the folding wingtip and the leading- and trailing-edge control surfaces.
That assembly stage is significantly more labor-intensive.
“With wing-box assembly, if in the future it’s half-automated, that’ll blow my mind,” said Ben Hempstead, chief of staff and mechanical engineer at an aerospace-design firm Electroimpact. “Many of the steps require skill and judgment and are very hard to automate,” he said.
According to Hempstead, Boeing had approached Electroimpact to research the possibility of automating one of the steps in the 737 wing production that currently requires the work of a dozen mechanics in Renton.
“We couldn’t figure out how to do it faster with machines,” Hempstead said.
And it seems even more unlikely that robots could pull of intricate jobs like installing hydraulic tubes and electrical wiring in the small, crowded spaces of an airplane wheel well. “Nobody has even talked about automating that,” Hempstead said. “I can’t even envision how you’d do it.”
Leading automation firms
After World War II, Boeing contributed to a booming middle class in Washington state, allowing blue-collar workers — many with only a high-school education — to achieve the American dream.
As robots remake the aerospace industry, the Pacific Northwest has become a hotbed of cutting edge aerospace-automation firms — including Electroimpact, Nova-Tech and MTorres America — all of which are hiring engineers as fast as they can.
But is Washington’s golden age of manual labor coming to an end with Boeing’s automation drive?
Back in 2005, close to 3,500 machinists in Renton produced 21 single-aisle 737s per month. Ten years later (2015), just over 6,000 machinists produced exactly twice as many. And so even with production increasing 100%, employment of machinists rose only 75%.
As robotic systems spread, that gap will only continue to widen. Boeing provided over 100,000 jobs in Washington state in the late 1990s, but now it’s unlikely that those days will ever return. The company’s payroll is down to about 73,000 today.
That’s still a big workforce, of course, and crucially important to the economy. Indeed, well-paid manual jobs are a critical asset to Washington’s social fabric.
As Electroimpact’s Hempstead reminds us, “We can’t all be baristas and software engineers.”