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


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

Continued from Part One: The History of Boeing’s Renton Plant. Read here.

-RENTON 737 SIGN

Success Breeds Competition: The Airbus A320 ups the ante and Boeing is forced to answer

In 1988, the first serious competitor to the 737 monopoly, the Airbus A320 entered service. With even more advanced systems like fly-by-wire flight controls, new higher powered and fuel efficient engines, a wider cabin, the first major use of composite materials in a narrow body airliner, and somewhat larger capacity on a direct model comparison basis, the A320 family quickly became a force to be reckoned with. In addition, Airbus offered aggressive pricing and quicker delivery windows. Having only recently launched the 2nd generation 737s, Boeing didn’t respond to the European framer’s challenge for another 5 years.

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

In 1993, Boeing finally answered with the Boeing 737 Next Generation. First flying in 1997, it first entered service in 1998 as a 737-700 (comparable in size to the 737-300) for launch customer Southwest. While retaining commonality with the 2nd generation 737s, the NextGens included a redesigned wing, and eventually winglets, that increased total fuel capacity by 30% and range to over 3,000 miles. Quieter, more powerful and more fuel-efficient engines in the form of CFM56-7Bs came online as well. The flight deck was further upgraded with new avionics. The NG’s upgraded passenger cabin was inspired by the then new 777 with bigger overhead bins and more curved surfaces. Airlines ordered 724 of the Next-Generation 737 models between the Next-Generation program launch Nov. 17, 1993, and the day the first airplane was delivered on Dec. 12, 1997.

On December 2, 1996: The first 737NG, a 737-700, rolls out of the Renton factory to all splashy event. On December 17, 1997 Boeing delivered the first Next-Generation 737-700 to launch customer Southwest Airlines. The 737-700 is the 2nd best selling 737NG behind the -800 but the -900 has picked up momentum. Image courtesy: Boeing

On December 2, 1996: The first 737NG, a 737-700, rolls out of the Renton factory to all splashy event. On December 17, 1997 Boeing delivered the first Next-Generation 737-700 to launch customer Southwest Airlines. The 737-700 is the 2nd best selling 737NG behind the -800 but the -900 has picked up momentum.
Image courtesy: Boeing

The first flight of the 737-900   on August 3, 2000. Launch customer Alaska Airlines received the first of 10 airplanes in May 2001. This model was replaced in 2005 with the 737-900ER. Image courtesy: Boeing

The first flight of the 737-900 on August 3, 2000. Launch customer Alaska Airlines received the first of 10 airplanes in May 2001. This model was replaced in 2005 with the 737-900ER.
Image courtesy: Boeing

The family quickly expanded on the low-end to the 737-600 to the high-end -700, -800, and eventually the -900. These new models allowed the 737 to perform missions once thought unthinkable for an airliner of its size such as trans-oceanic and trans-continental services. When the 737 was stretched to the -900 in 2000, the 737 affectively again hastened the demise of another Boeing brethren, the 757. With a perfect storm of the global bullish economic era of the mid-to-late 1990s and the emergence of low cost carriers such around the world such as WestJet, EasyJet and RyanAir, sales of the 737 NextGen order book absolutely exploded. In 2004, The 1,500th Next-Generation 737 was delivered to ATA Airlines. The Next-Generation 737 family reached this milestone delivery in less time than any other commercial airplane family, six years after the delivery of the first model. The Next-Generation 737 bested the previous record holder, the Classic 737 series, by four years. Where it took 26 years to reach 2,500 737 total deliveries. It only took another 13 years to reach 5,000 deliveries – a Southwest 737-700 in 2006. At this point, the Guinness World Records acknowledged the 737 as the most-produced large commercial jet airplane in aviation history. It was just shy of 15 years between the first Next-Generation 737 order and the 5,000th order. Again, the Next Generation 737 reached this order milestone more quickly than any other commercial jet in history. The milestones continued to pile on. On April 16, 2012, Boeing delivered the 4,000th Next-Generation 737. The delivery, a 737-700 with the new Boeing Sky Interior to China Southern Airlines,  occurred two years and eight months after the 3,000th Next-Generation 737 delivery to India’s Jet Lite in August 2009. The 4,000th! 737NG, a 737-800, was delivered to China Southern Airlines on April 13, 2012.

The Boeing 737-900 NextGen was rolled out from Renton Assembly line 1 on July 23, 2000.  Image Courtesy: Boeing

The Boeing 737-900 NextGen was rolled out from Renton Assembly line 1 on July 23, 2000.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

The first Boeing Next-Generation 737 with production-installed winglets in a joint venture with Aviation Partners, rolled out of the paint hangar in Seattle on March 25, 2001 and first flew shorty thereafter. This Southwest Boeing 737-800 was the first to have them installed at the Renton plant. The winglets have now become ubiquitous on the 737, especially the NG where 95% of customers opt for them at the time of order. Image courtesy: Boeing

The first Boeing Next-Generation 737 with production-installed winglets in a joint venture with Aviation Partners, rolled out of the paint hangar in Seattle on March 25, 2001 and first flew shorty thereafter. This Southwest Boeing 737-800 was the first to have them installed at the Renton plant. The winglets have now become ubiquitous on the 737, especially the NG where 95% of customers opt for them at the time of order.
Image courtesy: Boeing

On February 13, 2006; The 5,000th 737, a 737-700 painted in Southwest Airlines colors, became the 447th 737 to join the carrier's fleet. Southwest helped launch three Boeing 737 models -- the 737-300, -500 and the –700, and now the MAX. They are the largest 737 operator in the world, since the airline began with 4 Boeing 737-200s back in 1971. Image Courtesy: Boeing

On February 13, 2006; The 5,000th 737, a 737-700 painted in Southwest Airlines colors, became the 447th 737 to join the carrier’s fleet. Southwest helped launch three Boeing 737 models — the 737-300, -500 and the –700, and now the MAX. They are the largest 737 operator in the world, since the airline began with 4 Boeing 737-200s back in 1971.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

The 7500th Boeing 737 was delivered on March 20, 2013 to Asian LCC Lion Air. Image courtesy: Boeing

The 7500th Boeing 737 was delivered on March 20, 2013 to Asian LCC Lion Air.
Image courtesy: Boeing

 The Best of Times. The Worst of Times at Renton

Though this unprecedented success was a boon to sales and marketing’s bulging order book, it was an absolute bust to manufacturing. The orders were coming in fast and furious but the suppliers and sub-contractors couldn’t keep up. On top of that, there were the issues of co-building the NextGen and Classic together. 1960s production flow techniques were being used to build state-of-the art aircraft. This meltdown culminated into an embarrassing and costly stoppage to the 737 line in 1997. Labor relations were still somewhat sour following a 1995 strike that didn’t help the situation. “We bit off more then we could chew”, admitted Randy Tinseth VP/ Marketing, Boeing Commercial Airplane.

The Boeing 737 Assembly line number 1 at Renton in the 1980s as the 2nd generation 737-300/400/500 series was taking over for the first generation 737-200 Classic. Image Courtesy: Boeing

The Boeing 737 Assembly line number 1 at Renton in the 1980s as the 2nd generation 737-300/400/500 series was taking over for the first generation 737-200 Classic.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

This top image shows the 737 assembly in the 1980s and 1990s, while the moving line introduced in 2002, is seen at the bottom: Images courtesy: Boeing

This top image shows the 737 assembly in the 1980s and 1990s, while the moving line introduced in 2002, is seen at the bottom:
Images courtesy: Boeing

RENTON ASSEMBLY PIC 2000S

 

Clearly something had to be done.
Boeing considered a number of things including closing Renton and moving 737 production to the large, and largely soon to be unused former 717 factory at Long Beach, California that Boeing had acquired in the 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas. While Airbus expanded its production footprint for the A320s with factories in Hamburg, Germany and China, real-estate swollen Boeing following the MDC merger began to shrink Renton selling off 65 acres. This land became apartments and a shopping mall that now hem in the complex. The Renton complex retained about 145 acres. This decision would come back to haunt the company a few years later, but also spurred it to be much more innovative and efficient in assembling jetliners. In spite of the most optimistic of marketing predictions at the time, no one could foresee how profound these decisions would be just a few years down the road.

Much of the formerly owned Boeing land at Renton was sold off and has been redeveloped for other uses, such as this shopping center across from the plant.

Much of the formerly owned Boeing land at Renton was sold off and has been redeveloped for other uses, such as this shopping center across from the plant.

Engines, built off-site by manufacturers such as CFM near Cincinatti, are covered and await installation in the factory.

Engines, built off-site by manufacturers such as CFM near Cincinatti, are covered and await installation in the factory.

The 737 wings are built on-site at Renton in another building before entering the final assembly building 4-82. Their control surfaces are added inside.

The 737 wings are built on-site at Renton in another building before entering the final assembly building 4-82. Their control surfaces are added inside.

Carolyn Corvi, then VP/GM of the 737/757 Programs led ground-breaking initiatives which reinvented the assembly process not only for the 737, but Boeing as a whole. Under Corvi’s leadership, the 737/757 Programs incorporated industry-leading applications of lean manufacturing principles. Erik Nelson, the Director of 737 Manufacturing describes Lean+ as “Boeing’s one overarching continuous improvement approach centered around a five-step continuous improvement process that integrates various techniques and tools, which we call Elements. It provides a common language, tools, principles and training so we can improve productivity, and make our amazing products and services better tomorrow than we do today – and better than our competitors ever could.”

Erik Nelson, the Director of 737 Manufacturing, describes Lean+ manufacturing at the Renton plant.

Erik Nelson, the Director of 737 Manufacturing, describes Lean+ manufacturing at the Renton plant.

In January 2002, Boeing introduced a moving assembly line that reduced 737 final assembly flow time from 22 days in 1999 to 11 days in 2005. This is quite a feat considering each 737 uses 394,000 unique parts and 42 miles of wiring. Erik Nelson points out “Production of an airframe officially beings at the spar load. From spar load to delivery takes about 2 ½ months, a process which used to take a year.” The 737 moving line was inspired by a visit to Toyota as well as commercial aviation’s first moving line, the Boeing 717 (MD-95). It has since inspired the 767 and 777’s moving line and the 787’s pulsing line. Once the Boeing 757 production ended, The 737 took over the 2nd line at the Renton Factory in December 2005. Airbus didn’t introduce their moving line until 2004.

The moving assembly line at Renton at the time of its opening in 2002 appears left-of-frame. The original static assembly line on the right side of the frame provides a fascinating contrast. Image Courtesy: Boeing

The moving assembly line at Renton at the time of its opening in 2002 appears left-of-frame. The original static assembly line on the right side of the frame provides a fascinating contrast.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

RENTON 737 MOVIE-8

Final Assembly Process of the Next-Generation 737 (From Boeing Fact Sheet)

The factory operates on 2 production shifts 5 days per week with a 3rd shift used for maintenance and some production work. The assembly line moves at 2.3 inches per minute.

RENTON BOEING 737 LINE 1 - FULL SHOT TO DAY 1 TO 4-1

 

A diagram of the Renton's moving assembly line production flow.

A diagram of the Renton’s moving assembly line production flow.

 

  • Barrel arrives from Wichita. Spirit AeroSystems builds 737 fuselages in Wichita, Kansas. The fuselages make their 2,000-mile rail trip to Renton, Wash., in about eight days. Each fuselage exterior receives a thin, green protective coating, which washes off before the airplane is painted. 

RENTON 737 IN PARKING LOT

  • Flow days 1-3: Initial interior installation. After the fuselage arrives in Renton from Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita via railroad, it is loaded by overhead crane into the “systems and installation” position inside one of two final assembly buildings. Mechanics install 80 percent of the permanent flooring and 20 percent temporary (in areas where flooring must be removed for later work), electrical and hydraulic systems, plumbing and insulation blankets inside the fuselage; and add the overwing doors and radome on the ‘nose’ of the airplane. The radome protects the airplane’s antenna from the weather. 
Sets of seats are installed on a Boeing 737-700 destined for Southwest Airlines. Image Courtesy: Boeing

Sets of seats are installed on a Boeing 737-700 destined for Southwest Airlines.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

 

RENTON 737 MOVIE-10 SEATS

Seats are installed in Flow Days 1-3 as seen in this Boeing produced video.

RENTON BOEING 737 LINE 2 RADOME ECU

RENTON BOEING 737 LINE 1 - PARTS CABINS RENTON BOEING 737 LINE 1 - PARTS SKY CABIN ROOF-2

 

  • Wing and winglet assembly. The 737 wing build-up process begins in a separate Renton building and culminates in a final assembly building. At its final stop, a set of wings receives its hydraulic and electrical systems, and optional fuel- and emissions-reducing Blended Winglets (wingtip extensions). Winglets add range, increase fuel efficiency, lower takeoff noise and decrease fuel burn by up to 4 percent on flights greater that 1,000 nmi. About 95 percent of airlines choose Blended Winglets. The slats and flaps originate from Spirit in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The spoilers come from Goodrich in Charlotte, NC while the ailerons arrive from Malaysia.

-RENTON 737 WING PARTS

RENTON BOEING 737 LINE 2 - COPA 737-3

  • Flow day 4: Wing-to-body join: An overhead crane moves the wings to the wing join position and mechanics use laser alignment to align the wings to the body and then affix the wing. Next, mechanics install the landing gear, and the airplane joins the “moving line,” a continuously moving assembly line which slowly moves products from one assembly team to the next. The vertical fin is sourced from Xi’an Aircraft Industry, China. The horizontal stabilizer is built by Korea Aerospace Industries while the rudder comes from Bombardier in Belfast.

-737 RENTON WING JOIN

  • Flow day 5: Tail join: The airplane has a more finished look with the addition of the vertical (tail) and horizontal stabilizers and painted rudder. Pre-painting the rudder aids in balancing the part during installation. Standard paint can weigh up to 12 pounds per gallon (5.4 kilograms per 3.7 liters). Mechanics also add plumbing, tubes and ducts, and rig flight controls.

RENTON BOEING 737 LINE 1 - DAYS 1-3 TAIL CHINA-3 RENTON BOEING 737 LINE 1 - DAYS 1-3 TAIL CHINA-2

  • Flow days 6-9: Interior completion and engine hang: Mechanics complete interior installation, including installing the sidewalls, seats, lavatories, galleys and so on. Crews perform about five “flight days” worth of functional testing before the airplane receives its engines. Engine supplier CFM trucks engine “cores” from Ohio to Renton and Boeing adds hydraulic, plumbing, exhaust and fire suppression systems to complete the build up. About two-thirds of the engines come from CFM in Ohio, and one third from Snecma of France. Engines are about one-fifth of the cost of an airplane.

RENTON BOEING 737 LINE 1 - ENGINE BAY-1

CFM engines in the engine build up area.

CFM engines in the engine build up area.

RENTON BOEING 737 LINE 1 - PARTS CABINS

-RENTON 737 READY TO ROLL

  • Rollout: The nearly-completed airplane spends about five days at Renton field before it makes its “B1” or first flight. Renton Field finishing touches include avionics installation, engine run and fueling. Painting takes up to three days and may occur either in Renton or at Boeing Field in Seattle, Wash. Aircraft are flown to Boeing Field for flight testing and final delivery. Once rolled-out, this is a 3-6 week process depending on the airline’s specifications and other factors such as where its painted.
This American Airlines Boeing 737-800 on Line 1 is very close to final rollout.

This American Airlines Boeing 737-800 on Line 1 is very close to final rollout.

The Boeing 737 Flightline at Renton. Once they leave Renton for Boeing Field, they never return.

The Boeing 737 Flightline at Renton. Once they leave Renton for Boeing Field, they never return.

A 737 rolls out on the 2nd shift. Image Courtesy: Boeing

A 737 rolls out on the 2nd shift.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

An aerial of the sole runway 16/34 at Renton Municipal Airport. Once 737s take-off from the 5,300 foot runway, they head to Boeing Field for flight testing and delivery. Image Courtesy: Boeing

An aerial of the sole runway 16/34 at Renton Municipal Airport. Once 737s take-off from the 5,300 foot runway, they head to Boeing Field for flight testing and delivery.
Image Courtesy: Boeing

The Boeing 737 Flight Line at Boeing Field, officially King County International Airport. All Boeing 737s are flight tested and delivered from here.

The Boeing 737 Flight Line at Boeing Field, officially King County International Airport. All Boeing 737s are flight tested and delivered from here.

Boeing Field 737 Flight Line-3

Corvi also was responsible for the “Move to the Lake” project, which co-located most of the people who design, build and support the 737 inside the Renton Final Assembly building on the south shore of Lake Washington. In 2004, 2,500 support employees from finance, engineering, tooling, and materials management to the Renton Final Assembly Building consolidating most involved with the program into 1 location. Area where parts were previously stored were converted into office space in three towers. This was designed to support the flow of the product – the support staff in the factory delivers drawings, financial date, build plans, and parts list to the factory floor similar to the way parts and tools are delivered. With just-in-time parts delivery, excessive storage space is needed. As an added touch, the towers correspond to the earth’s hemispheres while the conference rooms are named after cities served by the 737.

This sign at Boeing's Renton  Plant describes the "Move to the Lake".

This sign at Boeing’s Renton Plant describes the “Move to the Lake”.

 Renton Factory Assembly Building Factoids

  • 109’-2” (33.3 m) high
  • 1,124’-3” (342.7 m) long
  • 756’-2” (230.5m) wide
  • 3-quarters of a million square feet (69,677 square meters)
  • Door openings are 300′ long by 90′ high, and consist of 8 door segments equally divided in an accordion fashion.

-RENTON 737 ROLLOUT DOORS The Boeing 737 Goes Into “MAX” Overdrive

The Boeing 737 NextGen order book continued to bulge, growing virtually unabated even through the deep worldwide economic slowdown / crisis of 2008-12. Ironically, this era of financial strife and sharply escalating fuel costs, as well as the growth of emerging markets, helped 737 and A320 sales go from strength to strength. Boeing however didn’t stand on it its laurels or did it? Boeing claims with the introduction of its latest performance improvement package “PIP”, today’s NGs are 6-7 more efficient then when they were first introduced in the late 1990s. Boeing’s Tinseth points out that “The (737) program has taken off with record sales. It’s simple. We make it better every time. We were first in its class with ETOPS 180, glass cockpits, Sky Interiors, and high bypass engines. We lower the operating costs through such new technologies as blended winglets, heads up display, carbon brakes, and more fuel-efficient engines. We enhance customer appeal with the new Sky Interior. This is an airplane that appeals to the heart of the market: emerging and developing economies and it is very successful with the LCC business model”. These new LCC airlines in emerging markets include Lion Air, Air Asia, and Gol! An unintended benefit of the weak economy, particularly in the U.S., is the poor financial results led to an elderly, fuel-in-efficient, maintenance intensive fleet which created an advantage and some say a bubble for airframe manufacturers, particularly in this sweet smart of the market. “The significant driver in the US is the demand to replace older and less efficient aircraft”, said Tinseth.

The Boeing Sky Interior option for the 737, first delivered in 2010, is one of the latest enhancements for the 737NG family. Over 500 have now been delivered. This example is seen on an American Airlines Boeing 737-800.

The Boeing Sky Interior option for the 737, first delivered in 2010, is one of the latest enhancements for the 737NG family. Over 500 have now been delivered. This example is seen on an American Airlines Boeing 737-800.

Even though the A320 sales were outpacing the 737 in the mid-to-late 2000s, Airbus had not seriously updated the A320 family technology or engines since the type was first introduced nearly 25 years before. In January 2011, the European airframe maker launched the A320 neo “New Engine Option”. Targeting a 2016 entry-into-service, Airbus claims the neo will offer 20% lower maintenance costs, an additional range of 500 miles, and burn 16% less fuel then the current A320. Additional features include an updated cabin to compete with Boeing’s industry leading Sky Interior and their own winglets called “Sharklets” The market responded in droves. By the end of 2011, Airbus had received 1,196 firm orders for the A320neo family making it the fastest selling new commercial aircraft in history. A big blow came when American Airlines, who had been an all-Boeing customer for over 20 years ordered 130 A320s and A320neos in July 2011. This ominous event in Boeing’s view had as much with delivery positions as it did with price and technology. Airbus with 3 plants building A320 family aircraft and a 4th eventually in Mobile, could deliver single-aisle airplanes quicker then Boeing. Other airlines such as Lion Air split their new fleet orders between the 737 and A320 which was previously virtually unheard of. This led to intense efforts to up the production rate at Renton with the production rate rising to 35 aircraft per month in December 2011. Simultaneously, Boeing faced the dilemma whether to develop an entirely a new design or build a fourth generation 737.

The A320neo is planned to enter service in October 2015, 27 years after the first A320 was delivered. This is almost 2 years ahead of the 737 Max. Image Courtesy: Airbus

The A320neo is planned to enter service in October 2015, 27 years after the first A320 was delivered. This is almost 2 years ahead of the 737 Max.
Image Courtesy: Airbus

Taking it to the MAX

Boeing was evaluating a clean-sheet proposal called the Y-1 “Project Yellowstone” that was rumored to even be a double-aisle airframe. Boeing’s Tinseth exclaims that not going forward with the new program was not about protecting one of Boeing’s biggest cash cows nor had the company become risk averse following the 787 issues: “The clean sheet design was coming together from a tech perspective. The biggest challenge was the production system. It would take a long time to go from a green field to 38 aircraft per month and it would be tough to compete in this market. New engines from P&W and CFM led us to mitigate the risk. The composites and other vanguard technologies on the short-medium haul were not as compelling as they were on larger planes such as the 787. Other technologies would allow us to respond quicker in the market and upgrade this aircraft”.

Boeing's patent drawings of the Y-1, clean sheet design shows a twin-aisle configuration.

Boeing’s patent drawing of the Y-1, clean sheet design shows a twin-aisle configuration.

Nearly a year after Airbus launched the neo and under pressure from customers, Boeing reached its decision. On August 30, 2011 launched the Boeing 737 MAX. The MAX will feature a larger diameter, more powerful and fuel-efficient engine the CFM International Leap-1B engine. A new type of wingtip device resembling a 3-way “V-shaped” combination of a blended winglet, wingtip fence, and raked wingtip would provide a distinctive visual cue different then any aircraft before. Boeing claims the new engines, winglet, and other aerodynamic changes will contribute to an a 16% lower fuel burn than the current Airbus A320, and 4% lower than the Airbus A320neo. This is a claim naturally disputed by the Toulouse airframe-maker. As for a further up gage of the 737 to replace the hole in the market vacated by the 757? According to Tinseth, “We’re on the edge of where we can go with the 737 MAX 9. The 757 territory is filled on the low-end by the 737-900 / MAX 9 and on the high-end by the 787-8”.

Boeing's 4th generation 737 Max line is scheduled for first deliveries in 2017. In response to the first-mover A320neo, its customers, the inherent risk of a clean sheet design, and cannibalizing sales of its cash cow 737 line, the manufacturer decided to against pursuing an entirely new aircraft as was originally considered. Boeing claims a 15-20% savings in fuel efficiency and operating costs over the current 3rd generation 737s. CGI image courtesy: Boeing

Boeing’s 4th generation 737 Max line is scheduled for first deliveries in 2017. In response to the first-mover A320neo, its customers, the inherent risk of a clean sheet design, and cannibalizing sales of its cash cow 737 line, the manufacturer decided to against pursuing an entirely new aircraft as was originally considered. Boeing claims a 15-20% savings in fuel efficiency and operating costs over the current 3rd generation 737s.
CGI image courtesy: Boeing

Boeing claims the new 737 MAX Advanced Technology winglet provides a reduction in fuel use of up to 1.5%. These were not part of the original 737 Max spec and were announced in June 2012. Image courtesy: Boeing

Boeing claims the new 737 MAX Advanced Technology winglet provides a reduction in fuel use of up to 1.5%. These were not part of the original 737 Max spec and were announced in June 2012.
Image courtesy: Boeing

At the time of launch, American Airlines the only disclosed customer. In December 2011, Boeing announced Southwest, who had launched the 2nd and 737NG would be the 737 MAX launch customer with a firm order of 150 aircraft and 150 options with an entry into service in 2017. Other major orders from United, AeroMexico, Virgin Australia, and Lion Air came flooding in and in 2012, the 737 surpassed the A320 neo for orders that year, though still lagged behind overall. Like the 787 and 747-8, The MAX would depart from Boeing’s customary “dash nomenclature” and become the 737 MAX 7, 8, and 9. Tinseth concedes that “With the MAX we were second to the market, they had a head-start. We’ve had an opportunity to market and share it with the market, who has responded well. We have a decided value advantage with the MAX.”

Image Courtesy: Boeing

Image Courtesy: Boeing

In terms of history repeating itself, Renton was once again an “aviation boom town” and the 737, a program once almost given up for dead, was the cash cow of the company, even exceeding the 777. Faced with the goal of ramping up NG production to 42 aircraft per month by mid-2014 and the assembly of the new MAX beginning in 2015 without disrupting current NG production, Boeing could have decamped for other U.S locations. Instead, the company decided to double down on Renton and add up to 1,000 new workers in the process, on top of the already 10,500 already employed there. On October 31, 2013 Boeing announced the production rate would rise to a record 47 aircraft per month by 2017 likely making the MAX surge line permanent. Given the existing expertise and supply chain in the Pacific Northwest, more harmonious employer / labor relations, and incentives from the state of Washington. Renton is crucial to Boeing’s competitiveness as the sole location for 737 assembly. Its competitor Airbus has already stepped up production of the rival A320 jet family to 42 per month at its 3 final-assembly plants in Europe and China. Beginning in 2016 its newly under construction plant in Mobile, Alabama will give it additional capacity of up to 4 aircraft per month at lower labor rates then Europe. Boeing is clearly feeling the pressure. Erik Nelson, the Director of 737 Manufacturing, gave us an exclusive tour of a facility not open to the public to demonstrate how Boeing’s going to meet these challenges “cockpit” on.

Boeing is in the process of making major changes to the production site including:

  • Removing delivery, processing and storage of buyer-furnished equipment such as seats and galleys from the final assembly area.

RENTON 737 SEATS

  • Constructing a new 75,000-square-foot building to house buyer-furnished equipment. This is the only new building to support the rate increases.
Galleys are among the buyer supported equipment being relocated to the new building to make way for the MAX line and increased production.

Galleys are among the buyer supported equipment being relocated to the new building to make way for the MAX line and increased production.

Toilet seats await installation in this "Laviator" shot.

Toilet seats await installation in this “Laviator” shot.

  • Expanding the systems installation of wings to accommodate 42 airplanes a month.

-RENTON 737 WING PARTS

  • Since 7 aircraft won’t fit nose-to-tail as needed, Boeing added a 7th position to assembly line 2 that due to the shorter line, requires the aircraft to make a right turn to the next position.
The new position at Renton's Line 2.

The new position at Renton’s Line 2.

  • Expanding the capacity to build wings, including investment in capital equipment and constructing another production line for building the wing boxes. The wings used to be built in heavy, towering fixtures with mechanics ascending tiered decks to work on the vertically hung assemblies. Now the flat lying wings move through three assembly stations and are advanced by a robotic tug every approximate 5 ½ hours.

To increase production, Boeing had to increase its 2nd line up to the production capacity of the first. Boeing synced-up the 2 lines to 19 aircraft per month, with 2 “blanks” traveling within the system. The January 2013 acceleration to 38 aircraft per month was accomplished by slowing down production on line 1 from 21 to 19 and increasing production on the modified, but still shorter line 2 from 17 to 19. The “blank platforms” will be filled with aircraft to arrive at 42 aircraft per month, 21 on each by 2014.

These "blank" platforms which will soon carry aircraft are already inserted into the moving assembly line.

These “blank” platforms which will soon carry aircraft are already inserted into the moving assembly line.

Then in 2015, Boeing will construct a third “temporary” line parallel to line 1, to build the MAX. The lessons learned from the existing “Classic” 2nd generation 737s interfering with 737NG ramp up back in the 1990s are clearly being applied nearly 20 years later. To make this happen, the prep area for engines, galleys, lavatories tails, and other components will be relocated, thus “clearing the clutter”. Boeing isn’t quoting the projected production figures for the MAX line. The plan is to integrate the MAX’s into the existing lines 1 and 2 as the 737NGs phase out. If production requires it, Boeing has the option of making the interim MAX line permanent or adding production in another part of the Renton plant. One mooted possibility is the separate line belonging to the P-8 Poseidon, a Naval variant of the 737-800 built for anti-submarine warfare.

This cluttered area in the foreground on Renton Assembly Line 1 will be cleared to make way for the new 737 MAX interim line, due to be activated in 2015.

This cluttered area in the foreground on Renton Assembly Line 1 will be cleared to make way for the new 737 MAX interim line, due to be activated in 2015.

The Boeing P-8 Poseidon is a military aircraft currently being developed for the United States Navy. It is seen on the flightline at Boeing Field.

The Boeing P-8 Poseidon is a military aircraft currently being developed for the United States Navy. It is seen on the flightline at Boeing Field.

With a clean-sheet design likely not due until the mid 2020s, Boeing has staked its future on the 737 MAX and Renton. Boeing has extended its lease to use Renton Municipal Airport through 2030. There’s always the chance of choppy air, but if history is any guide, the world’s most prolific aircraft factory is clearly up to the task.

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

Boeing Field 737 Flight Line-2

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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