Inside Boeing’s 737 Renton Factory As They Take It To “The MAX”: Part One

 Reported from Seattle by: Chris Sloan, Airchive.com founder and editor-in-chief

Note: this piece was originally published in June 2013 before Boeing announced that its 737 production rate would rise to a record production rate of 47 aircraft per month by 2017.

RENTON BOEING ASSY PLANT EXT-2 copy

On the evening of March 18, 2013 Boeing’s Renton Plant rolled out its first Boeing 737, a 737-800 bound for Panamanian Airline COPA, at the astounding new production rate of 38 aircraft per month. Boeing had only reached 35 airplanes per month, its previous historic high commercial production rate in January 2012. 2 days later on March 20, 2013, Boeing delivered the 7500th 737, the 7,229nd example built at Renton (more on this later). By Spring 2014, the rate is expected to leap to 42 aircraft per month, and Boeing announced on Oct 31 that production would rise to a record 47 aircraft per month by 2017. In 2015, Renton will begin production of the new 737 MAX that is due to enter commercial service in 2017, 50 years after the 737 first entered service in 1967! The Boeing 737 is the best-selling and longest continuously produced commercial airliner of all time with over 10,500 deliveries and orders. As of April, 2013 between the new Max (1,234) and current the Next-Generation (4,395), the 737 backlog stands at 3,136 aircraft. With the increased production rates, the current order book will take 6 ½ years alone to clear. Boeing’s current market outlook estimates 23,000 new narrow body airliner orders in the 737 / A320 families category over the next 20 years. Three draw dropping data-points stand out:

  • 40% of the world’s jetliner fleet has been manufactured at Renton.
  • Renton has produced an astonishing total of over 15,000 aircraft making it one of the most prolific aircraft factories, and the most prolific jetliner factory in history.
  • With approximately 5,600 737s in service, 25% of the world’s large jet fleet (non RJ) are Boeing 737s.
The first Boeing 737, a Dash 800 for COPA, to be produced at the increased 38 aircraft per month rate rolls-out of paint on March 18, 2013. Image courtesy: Boeing

The first Boeing 737, a Dash 800 for COPA, to be produced at the increased 38 aircraft per month rate rolls-out of paint on March 18, 2013.
Image courtesy: Boeing

737 MAX 7,8,9 artwork

The Boeing 737 Max family is due to begin assembly in 2015, with an entry-in-service target of 2017. This 4th generation of 737s will begin to ply the skies 50 years after the first 737 first flew.

With eye-popping numbers like this, one has to ask how this relatively compact factory copes with the demands placed on it? As is often the case, history is a prelude to the present and predictor of the future. This story of superlatives dates back to the early 20th century. The land on the marshy shores of Lake Washington, a few miles southeast of Seattle, on the Cedar River, was used mainly as a hay farm. The land was shortly transferred from its private owners to the state of Washington and finally the Federal government in 1941 as US involvement in WWII looked inevitable. According to Boeing’s Corporate Historian, Mike Lombardi “Boeing began construction in Renton of the XPB-1 Sea Ranger, an experimental reconnaissance flying boat for the US Navy. Exactly one of these was constructed when the order was cancelled to make way for production of the B-29 Superforetress for the US Army Air Force. This was the most technologically advanced airplane of its day and at the height of production, Renton built 5 airplanes built per day and 160 built per month over 4 lines”. By the time production ceased in May 1946, Boeing had built an incredible 1,119 B-29s over a two and a half year period. The Renton plant was returned to the government in 1946, but re-opened in 1948 by Boeing to build the C-97 Stratofreighter, which became the basis for the famous Boeing 377 Stratocruiser airliner. The uber-luxurios “Strat”, with its double deck cabin was considered the “747 of the 1950s”. Boeing built 883 C/KC-97s and 56 377s at Renton.

Renton is no stranger to high production rates. During WWII 1,119 B-29 Superfortresses were produced at Renton. Image courtesy: Boeing

Renton is no stranger to high production rates. During WWII 1,119 B-29 Superfortresses were produced at Renton.
Image courtesy: Boeing

At the height of production, B-29s for the Air Force were assembled on 4 lines at Renton. Image courtesy: Boeing

At the height of production, B-29s for the Air Force were assembled on 4 lines at Renton.
Image courtesy: Boeing

Boeing KC-97s under production in the late 1940s at Renton. The 377 Stratocruiser airliners were built at Boeing's Plant 2 near Boeing Field. Image Courtesy: Boeing

Boeing KC-97s under production in the late 1940s at Renton. The 377 Stratocruiser airliners were built at Boeing’s Plant 2 near Boeing Field.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

Extra: Original Boeing 377 Memorabilia here.

 The next Renton milestone literally changed the world. It’s hard to believe that it has been almost 60 years since the May 1954 rollout of the Boeing 367-80 at Renton. This Dash 80 was the prototype for the KC-135 Stratotanker and set the stage for the first commercially successful jet airliner, the legendary Boeing 707 which kicked off the jet age. The first production Boeing 707 was rolled out at Renton on 28 October 1957 and production continued to the last commercial 707 in 1978 and E-3 AWACS in 1991. There were a total of 820 KC-135s and 1,010 707s built at Renton, including 154 Boeing 720s.

Extra: Original Boeing 707 Sales Brochures and Technical Briefings here.

The predecessor to the Boeing 707, the famous 367-80, rolled out at Renton on May 15, 1954. It was the only one built; and is narrower then a 707. This is the very aircraft that famed Boeing test pilot  Alvin "Tex" Johnston barrel rolled in front of a demo to Boeing customers over Lake Washington in 1955. On May 26, 1972 Boeing donated the Dash 80 to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, which had designated it one of the 12 most significant aircraft of all time.[ For the next 18 years the aircraft was stored at a "desert boneyard" in Arizona before being retrieved by Boeing in 1990 for restoration, though it was used for some flight testing sporadically during that time. The Dash 80's final flight was to Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. on August 27, 2003. it is now on display in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. Image courtesy: Boeing

The predecessor to the Boeing 707, the famous 367-80, rolled out at Renton on May 15, 1954. It was the only one built; and is narrower then a 707. This is the very aircraft that famed Boeing test pilot Alvin “Tex” Johnston barrel rolled in front of a demo to Boeing customers over Lake Washington in 1955. On May 26, 1972 Boeing donated the Dash 80 to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, which had designated it one of the 12 most significant aircraft of all time. For the next 18 years the aircraft was stored at a “desert boneyard” in Arizona before being retrieved by Boeing in 1990 for restoration, though it was used for some flight testing sporadically during that time. The Dash 80′s final flight was to Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C. on August 27, 2003. it is now on display in the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia.
Image courtesy: Boeing

The first 707 jetliner conducted its first flight on December 20, 1957. This photo was taken over Puget Sound in Washington State on the airplane's second flight, after unpredictable weather ended the first flight after just seven minutes. The skies cleared later in the day, and the crew took the 707 for a 71-minute second flight. Image courtesy: Boeing

The first 707 jetliner conducted its first flight on December 20, 1957. This photo was taken over Puget Sound in Washington State on the airplane’s second flight, after unpredictable weather ended the first flight after just seven minutes. The skies cleared later in the day, and the crew took the 707 for a 71-minute second flight.
Image courtesy: Boeing

The same location was the home of the iconic Boeing 727. Up until the 737 surpassed it, the 727 was the world’s highest produced commercial jetliner with all 1,832 built between 1963-84 at Renton. All 1,050 of the 757, the 727’s heir apparent were built between 1981-2004, on what is now line 2 of the 737 program.

Extra: Original Boeing 727 Sales Brochures and Technical Briefings here.

On November 27, 1962, Boeing rolled out the prototype of the Boeing 727 trijet at Renon. The 727 would become one of the most successful jet airliners of all time, until first eclipsed by 737. Production ended in 1984 with the last passenger delivery in 1983 to USAirways. Image courtesy: Boeing

On November 27, 1962, Boeing rolled out the prototype of the Boeing 727 trijet at Renon. The 727 would become one of the most successful jet airliners of all time, until first eclipsed by 737. Production ended in 1984 with the last passenger delivery in 1983 to USAirways.
Image courtesy: Boeing

Extra: Original Boeing 757 Sales Brochures and Technical Briefings here.

The rear fuselage section of the first Boeing 757-300 is lifted into place on the assembly line at the Boeing factory in Renton on March 19, 1998. The 757 production line is now the site of the 737's 2nd production line. Image courtesy: Boeing

The rear fuselage section of the first Boeing 757-300 is lifted into place on the assembly line at the Boeing factory in Renton on March 19, 1998. The 757 production line is now the site of the 737′s 2nd production line.
Image courtesy: Boeing

Lombardi points out a little known fact that “Everett wasn’t the only place for Boeing 747 work as the first 4 747s built were refurbished at Renton.” In December 1969, a Jumbo destined for Pan Am (N732PA) landed short when landing on the 5,382 foot-long runway at Renton Municipal Airport. The right wing landing gear was torn from the aircraft and the number 3 and 4 engine nacelles contacted the runway. Up until, the building of 747 Factory at Everett in the late 1960s, the Renton final assembly hall for the 707s and 727s was the largest building in the world by volume. Today, Everett receives the lion’s share of the buzz, but Renton rules by sheer numbers.

The original prototype 727-100, which was eventually delivered to United, is surrounded by Boeing 707s at Renton in 1962. 737 production began at Boeing Field as Renton was tied up at the time with other projects during the 1960s "Jetliner Boom". Image courtesy: Boeing

The original prototype 727-100, which was eventually delivered to United, is surrounded by Boeing 707s at Renton in 1962. 737 production began at Boeing Field as Renton was tied up at the time with other projects during the 1960s “Jetliner Boom”.
Image courtesy: Boeing

Renton production wasn’t just limited to things with wings either. 24 Boeing Jetfoil commercial hydrofoil ship and 6 PHM USS Pegasus Class Missile-ships were built here as well.

Planes weren't the only thing built at Renton. Boeing launched three Jetfoil 929-100 hydrofoils that were acquired in 1975 for service in the Hawaiian Islands. When the service ended in 1979 the three hydrofoils were acquired by Far East Hydrofoil for service between Hong Kong and Macau. Image courtesy: Boeing

Planes weren’t the only thing built at Renton. Boeing launched three Jetfoil 929-100 hydrofoils that were acquired in 1975 for service in the Hawaiian Islands. When the service ended in 1979 the three hydrofoils were acquired by Far East Hydrofoil for service between Hong Kong and Macau.
Image courtesy: Boeing

Boeing Jetfoil-1

Renton Production Numbers (as of February 2013)

  • 1 x XPPB-1 Sea Ranger
  • 1,119 x B-29A Superfortress
  • 24 x TB-50H Superfortress
  • 888 x C/KC-97 Stratofreighters
  • 1 x 367-80 (Dash 80 prototype)
  • 820 x C/KC-135
  • 1,010 x 707/720
  • 1,832 x 727
  • 1,050 x 757
  • 24 x Jetfoil commercial hydrofoil ships
  • 6 x PHM USS Pegasus Class Missile-ships

737 production at Renton (7,491 through February 20, 2013)

  • 1,114 x 737-200 (1967- 1988)
  • 1,113 x 737-300 (1984-1999)
  • 486 x 737-400 (1988 – 2000)
  • 389 x 737-500 (1990-1999)
  • 69 x 737-600 (1998 – 2006)
  • 1,089 x 737-700 (1997 – 2013)
  • 111 x 737-700 BBJ
  • 15 x 737-700C
  • 14 x 737-700 AEW&C
  • 2,809 x 737-800 (1998 – 2013)
  • 21 x P-8A/I
  • 18 x 737-800 BBJ
  • 52 x 737-900  (2001-2005)
  • 155 737-900ER (2007-2013)
  • 6 x 737-900 BBJ
The first Boeing 737 under construction at Boeing Field in 1966. Image Courtesy: Boeing

The first Boeing 737 under construction at Boeing Field in 1966.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

Birth of a legend: The Baby Boeing

Due to the bustling production of the 707 and 727 production and future Boeing SST production during the 1960s jet boom at the plant, 737 production didn’t begin at Renton. At 95 acres and 2.3 million square foot, the plant was just too busy to take on another program. The first 271 Boeing 737-100s and 737-200s, built between 1966 and early 1970, were produced at a factory adjacent to Boeing Field.

The prototype Boeing 737 rolls out of the original factory adjacent to Boeing Field. The factory wasn't tall enough so the tail had to be attached after each one rolled out. At the time, Renton was at capacity with the 707 and 727 production. After 271 aircraft, production was moved to Renton in late 1970. This coincided with an aircraft production slow-down due to the recession of the early 1970s. Image courtesy: Boeing

The prototype Boeing 737 rolls out of the original factory adjacent to Boeing Field. The factory wasn’t tall enough so the tail had to be attached after each one rolled out. At the time, Renton was at capacity with the 707 and 727 production. After 271 aircraft, production was moved to Renton in late 1970. This coincided with an aircraft production slow-down due to the recession of the early 1970s.
Image courtesy: Boeing

The original Boeing 737 prototype is given a champagne christening during the January 17, 1967 roll out event by flight attendants representing the aircraft's customers. Image courtesy: Boeing

The original Boeing 737 prototype is given a champagne christening during the January 17, 1967 roll out event by flight attendants representing the aircraft’s customers.
Image courtesy: Boeing

It’s hard to comprehend that the world’s most successful airliner was almost killed. Initial airline reaction to the 737 was tepid at best, with Lufthansa taking the first 21 Boeing 737-100s, entering service in February 1968. United placed the second order for the 737 with 40 orders for the stretched 737-200. The Dash 200 became the successor to the 737-100 (only generating 30 orders) and new standard of the first generation. United’s 737-200s began service in April 1968. Due to industry capacity and a severe economic downturn in 1970, airliner orders nearly came to a halt. Boeing having just launched the 747 was seriously affected and had it not been for the Air Force’s order for 19 T-43s (military 737), the program would likely have been cancelled. In an effort to cut cost and increase efficiency all singe aisle programs were consolidated at Renton The 737 moved to the major assembly building 4-82 at Renton beginning with L/N 272.  737s and 727s were built in same building, with aircraft arranged in 2 rows at angles to the wall. This production system would last well into the 1990s and have severe consequences in the years to come as we’ll delve into later.

Extra: Original Boeing 737 Sales Brochures and Technical Briefings here.

Lufthansa Boeing 737-100 D-ABEC was the 4th 737 off the line and the first delivered not only to Lufthansa, but to any airline. Long since scrapped in 1995 at Marana, AZ, it was last registered to Ansett New Zealand. This 737 was also owned by America West AIrlines. Image Courtesy: Boeing

Lufthansa Boeing 737-100 D-ABEC was the 4th 737 off the line and one of the 6 originally involved in the test program. Long since scrapped in 1995 at Marana, AZ, it was last registered to Ansett New Zealand. This 737 was also owned by America West AIrlines.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

The US Air Force version of the 737, the T-43A, essentially saved the 737 program in the early 1970s when commercial orders had dried up. Image courtesy: Boeing

The US Air Force version of the 737, the T-43A, essentially saved the 737 program in the early 1970s when commercial orders had dried up.
Image courtesy: Boeing

The original Boeing 737 assembly line at Boeing Field’s Thompson facility in the late 1960s before production moved to Renton. Image Courtesy: Boeing

The original Boeing 737 assembly line at Boeing Field’s Thompson facility in the late 1960s before production moved to Renton.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

From 1970, this is the first 737 to be produced at Renton. After 271 Boeing 737s were produced at the Boeing Field factory, production of Boeing's small twin switched over to Renton, joining 727s and 707s at the site. Image courtesy: Boeing

From 1970, this is the first 737 to be produced at Renton. After 271 Boeing 737s were produced at the Boeing Field factory, production of Boeing’s small twin switched over to Renton, joining 727s and 707s at the site.
Image courtesy: Boeing

From a sales standpoint, the 737 wasn’t exactly a barn burner through the 1970s as it took 10 years to reach 500 planes sold with the 500th example delivered to Gulf Air in 1977. Nevertheless, the order book gradually began to gain momentum especially as airlines such as Southwest, Frontier, United, Delta, Lufthansa, Air California, and British Airways warmed to the type’s economics with its ability to fly profitably on short-haul segments because of its fuel-efficient twin-engine and 2-man crew configuration. The June 1971 introduction of the 737-200 Advanced model after L/N 135 that gave the Boeing baby twin a 15% increase in payload and range over the original -200s was a particular boost, even in the face of rising fuel prices and the weak economy of much of the 1970s and early 1980s. The 200s were produced until 1988 with 1,114 aircraft rolling off the line.

On December 6, 1968, United, the 2nd customer for the 737 after Lufthansa, received the 100th 737, a Boeing 737-200. Image courtesy: Boeing

On December 6, 1968, United, the 2nd customer for the 737 after Lufthansa, received the 100th 737, a Boeing 737-200.
Image courtesy: Boeing

500th 737 9-13-1977

Bahrain based Gulf Air received the 500th Boeing 737 on September 13, 1977 just 10 years after the aircraft entered service with Lufthansa.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

Delta accepted the 100th Boeing 737, one of its first, in December 1993. This was just 5 years after the 500th 737 was delivered. Image Courtesy: Boeing

Delta accepted the 1000th Boeing 737, one of its first, in December 1993. This was just 5 years after the 500th 737 was delivered.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

The Boeing 737 really came into its own when the 2nd generation 737 series entered service in 1984, beginning with Southwest Airlines. First flying on February 24, 1984 as the 1,001st 737 built, the 737-300 featured many improvements including a CFM56-3B-1 high-bypass turbofan which generated significant improvements in fuel economy, range, and reduction in range. The fuselage was stretched by 9 feet, 5 inches over the 737-200 adding passenger and cargo capacity that led to improved cost per passenger mile. The flight deck was updated with a “glass” cockpit, a first in a single-aisle airliner. The wing and tailfin incorporated additional changes enhancing the Baby Boeing’s aerodynamics. The 737-400 stretched the platform even further entering service in 1988. A 737-200 sized version, the 737-500 entered service in 1990. The 2nd generation 737 family became a phenomenally successful workhorse for the world’s airlines for a variety of missions. Its success partially led to the demise of the 727 as many airlines built their fleets around the 737, particularly LCC phenomena’s Southwest and America West, as well as Chinese carriers who began to order in large numbers. A total of 1,988 of the 2nd generation 737s, now known as Classics, were built between 1984 and 2000. The 2,500th 737, a 737-300 was delivered to Southwest Airlines in June 1993.

The prototype model of the 2nd generation 737, the Boeing 737-300, now known as the "Classic" was rolled out at Renton on January 17, 1984. It first flew on 24 February 1984 and was eventually delivered to USAir. 1,113 737-300s were produced making it the most successful variant of the 2nd generation. Image courtesy: Boeing

The prototype model of the 2nd generation 737, the Boeing 737-300, now known as the “Classic” was rolled out at Renton on January 17, 1984. It first flew on 24 February 1984 and was eventually delivered to USAir. 1,113 737-300s were produced making it the most successful variant of the 2nd generation.
Image courtesy: Boeing

On November 30, 1984 Southwest took delivery of its first Boeing 737–300, N300SW. It was the launch customer and as of May 2012 is the largest operator of the aircraft type with 125 still in service - many with winglets. The first 737-300 was dubbed "Kitty Hawk." It flew its final flight from Paine Field on April 18th, 2011 the first 737-300 is now preserved at the Museum of Flight at Dallas Love Field. Image courtesy: Boeing

On November 30, 1984 Southwest took delivery of its first Boeing 737–300, N300SW. It was the launch customer and as of May 2012 is the largest operator of the aircraft type with 125 still in service – many with winglets. The first 737-300 was dubbed “Kitty Hawk.” It flew its final flight from Paine Field on April 18th, 2011 the first 737-300 is now preserved at the Museum of Flight at Dallas Love Field.
Image courtesy: Boeing

The 737-500 was launched in 1987 by and entered service in 1990 with Southwest Airlines. The length of the 737-500 is similar to that of the 737-200. Southwest went on to operate The 389th and last -500 was delivered to All Nippon Airways on July 26, 1999. Southwest is down to a fleet of 19 -500s. Image courtesy: Boeing

The 737-500 was launched in 1987 by and entered service in 1990 with Southwest Airlines. The length of the 737-500 is similar to that of the 737-200. Southwest went on to operate The 389th and last -500 was delivered to All Nippon Airways on July 26, 1999. Southwest is down to a fleet of 19 -500s.
Image courtesy: Boeing

Clearly the pace was quickening, but all this success attracted unintended and unwanted attention from a certain competitor in Toulouse. In part 2, we’ll look at how Boeing responded to the Airbus A320 threat, the highs and lows of the 737 program in the 1990s, the reinvention of the 737 production process including the moving assembly line and “move to the lake”, and how Boeing is ramping up production to 42 737s per month and gearing up to build the Max beginning in 2015. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with some surprising factoids on the “Baby Boeing”.

The first flight of the Airbus A320-100 came 25 years ago on February 22, 1987. The advanced aircraft flew for 3 hours 23 minutes on its first test. The A320 was the first direct challenger to the 737. Note that many of the original 100 series didn't have the trademark 320 wing fences. Image courtesy: Airbus

The first flight of the Airbus A320-100 came 25 years ago on February 22, 1987. The advanced aircraft flew for 3 hours 23 minutes on its first test. The A320 was the first direct challenger to the 737. Note that many of the original 100 series didn’t have the trademark 320 wing fences.
Image courtesy: Airbus

The Renton Assembly Line #1 as it appeared in April 2013, just a few months after it had ramped up to a record 38 aircraft per month. Image Courtesy: Boeing

The Renton Assembly Line #1 as it appeared in April 2013, just a few months after it had ramped up to a record 38 aircraft per month.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

Big Facts for The Baby Boeing

  • Typically, about 50 gallons (189 liters) of paint are used to paint an average 737. Once the paint is dry, it will weigh approximately 250 pounds (113 kilograms) per airplane, depending on the paint scheme.
  • With approximately 5,600 airplanes in service, the 737s (early 737s, Classic and Next-Generation) represent a quarter of the total worldwide fleet of large commercial jets flying today. 
  • More than 331 airlines in 111 countries fly 737s.
  • On average, over 2,000 737 airplanes are in the air at any given time.
  • One 737 takes off or lands every 2.0 seconds.
  • For all 737 models, there are approximately 54,500 scheduled flights per day. This means that nearly 1/3 of all commercial flights are on 737s
  •  The 737 family has carried more than 16.4 billion passengers; that is equivalent to every single man, woman and child flying at least twice. (2012 world population was 7 billion)
  • The 737 has flown more than 113 billion miles; equivalent to approximately 608 round trips from the earth to the sun.
  • The 737 family has flown more than 176.5 million flights.
  • The 737 family has flown more than 251 million flight hours; the equivalent to one airplane flying more than 28,656 years nonstop.
  • 10,000 737s stacked on top of one another would be approximately 406,000 feet or 77 miles (124 kilometers) high, and is equivalent to 149 Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the tallest building in the world, stacked on top of one another.
  • 10,000 737s at any one time would carry approximately 1,500,000 passengers.

Extra: View Full Boeing Renton Tour Photo Gallery here.

Special thanks to: Boeing’s Doug Alder, Jr; Michael Lombardi, and Erik Nelson for their invaluable time, expertise, and assistance in the writing of this post.

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