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Boeing builds airplanes in world's largest room

Keywords: Tags  Boeing, 787, 777, 737, Everett, aluminum, aerospace, Andrea Hotter

NEW YORK — In a building some 25 miles north of Seattle, several thousand people are quietly going about their daily jobs. A bicycle meanders through, carrying a walk-weary worker past the coffee shops, laundromats and restaurants inside, while a golf cart whirs along, hugging the perimeter and sticking to carefully marked lines on the floor.

It’s the world’s largest room—a third of a mile from east to west, twice as long north to south—and at any one time as many as 10 airplanes are being meticulously assembled inside it. The continuous-roof building is home to Boeing Co.’s Everett plant, the assembly line for its twin-aisle airplanes, including the 747, 767, 777 and 787 Dreamliner.

Putting its scale into context, the size of the whole Everett facility is equivalent to 46 Buckingham Palaces, five pyramids of Giza or 17 Taj Mahals. Yet the assembly lines are laid out to perfection, with the gap between the walls and the planes narrow.

Driving the golf cart is Wes Bare, a former pilot who now gives tours to executives visiting the plant. His love of aviation and visible enthusiasm for imparting his knowledge of it is infectious. According to Bare, Everett has its own police and fire departments, and even an employee who hunts unwelcome birds at night in order to prevent them from damaging the planes.

It all started at the site back in the 1960s, when Boeing announced it planned to build the massive 747 jumbo jet. Engineer Joe Setter, later nicknamed “the father of the 747,” was put in charge. The world’s biggest plane needed the world’s biggest room. Everett at that time didn’t have a roof, and Setter’s team—known as the Incredibles—worked in the rain to assemble the plane. Defying the doubters, the 747 was developed within 16 months.

These days, Chicago-based Boeing produces an average of 1.5 of its 747 series each month, along with 8.3 of its 777 model, 10 of its 787 model—eight at Everett, two in South Carolina—and one 767.

Considering the high level of activity, the plant is extremely calm. Most of the work isn’t mechanized, meaning the 6 million parts of the 747, the 3 million parts of the 777 and the 1.5 million parts of the composite-dominated 787 are mostly put together by hand. Boeing describes its planes as patients and its mechanics as surgeons.

The composite structure of the 787, including its fuselage and wings, gives it a very different visual appearance from its aluminum peers; it looks plastic. But there’s nothing flimsy about the aircraft.

The 787-8 Dreamliner can carry 242 passengers up to 9,000 miles, while the 787-9 Dreamliner will carry 280 passengers 9,400 miles on its inaugural commercial flight and the new 787-10, which is scheduled to be delivered in 2018, will carry 323 passengers up to 8,050 miles. The airplane is designed to use 20 percent less fuel than today’s similarly sized airplanes, and also travels at a speed comparable to the world’s fastest twin-aisle airplanes.

The company takes great care of the aircraft interior, ensuring it doesn’t damage equipment during installation. Seats, for instance, are laid out in the building and covered, with a notice on each one that reads, “warning—treat as” over a picture of a Lamborghini.

The company brings in the parts for its 787 on a converted cargo plane named the Dreamlifter, which lands about a half mile north of the Everett plant. Focused exclusively on the 787 at the moment, the Dreamlifter may expand to other aircraft programs in the future.

Less than 200 of the 787 planes have been made so far and Boeing has delivered 122 of the series to 16 different customers globally. The first of its new 787-9 series model is scheduled to be delivered to Air New Zealand in the fourth quarter of 2014. It will have half a million fewer fasteners than a 767, providing a weight savings of 20 percent.

Boeing, founded in 1916 in the Puget Sound region of Washington, became a leading producer of military and commercial aircraft and undertook a series of strategic mergers and acquisitions to become the world’s largest, most diversified aerospace company. Its revenue last year totaled $86.6 billion, of which $53 billion came from its commercial aircraft sector—with some 70 percent of that from customers outside the United States. It has an order backlog of $374 billion on the commercial side alone.

While Everett focuses on twin-aisle planes, Boeing’s highest-producing model is the single-aisle 737, which it assembles at its Renton facility, a 278-acre site south of Seattle, at a rate of 42 per month.

There have already been 1,200 advanced sales of the 737 Max, breaking the sales records for the 787. An aluminum-based plane, the Max has a far larger engine than the existing 737 Next Generation (NG) aircraft, with a fan diameter that has increased to 69 inches from 61 inches, providing an overall 14-percent improvement in operational costs.

The 737 has a 3,000-aircraft backlog. Nearly 8,000 have been delivered and there are currently 10,000 orders on the books—mainly for the new Max series, although the NG is still highly popular.

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