USA: Seattle superstar - BOEING.

USA: Seattle superstar - BOEING. - Everybody everywhere has seen a Boeing. The 737 is the best selling airliner ever: 2,100 in the air and more coming. Buffs say Boeing are boring; Boeing can afford to stay above it all, says Malcolm Wheatley.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Everybody everywhere has seen a Boeing. The 737 is the best selling airliner ever: 2,100 in the air and more coming. Buffs say Boeing are boring; Boeing can afford to stay above it all, says Malcolm Wheatley.

Bill Blansett is at the sharp end of America's battle to cut its $6 billion monthly trade deficit. The manufacturing director at Boeing's Everett plant has the task of dealing with a large slice of a $91 billion order book, the largest in the civil aerospace business.

Boeing, of course, has the same key role in the American economy as British Aerospace in Britain. Both are key players in their respective national manufacturing and export capability, both are vital to civil and military aerospace efforts and both employ huge workforces (112,000 for Boeing and 127,000 for BAe). But the parallel ends there. While BAe lurches into financial crisis, Boeing produced bumper sales of $27.6 billion last year.

So what is the Seattle plane-maker's secret? For Blansett, a 38-year veteran with the company, who started on the B52 bomber-line, the answer is simple. In a lilt that betrays his roots ("a real good ol' boy from the South") he says that Boeing has been building on a scale that defies the British imagination since its wartime heyday. Rumaging around in his desk, he produces an ancient black-and-white photograph - "from 1943 or 1944, I don't remember which" - showing a single day's production of 16 finished ready-to-fly B17 bombers.

Production levels on this scale tipped the balance against Germany and Japan in the war. Today, the battle is no less intense. Only the enemies are different: McDonnell Douglas and the European Airbus consortium. The disciplines developed in wartime production have been refined over fifty years, but Blansett disarmingly describes the production process as "extruding an airplane out of the door just like toothpaste". Boeing's volumes seem more akin to the mass-consumer market rather than aircraft costing some $145 million each. A Boeing 747 - the largest commercial airliner in the world - rolls off the production line every four days. A 737 - the world's best-selling passenger jet - rolls off the line every working day. The company is also turning out its 757s and 767s at a similar rate, and is busily gearing up to add yet another - the new 777, due to take to the skies above Seattle in 1995.

The 747 contains six million separate components, sourced from 1,500 different suppliers in 15 countries. A veritable jigsaw. Everett, where the 747 and 767 are built, employs 24,000 people - 7,000 of them directly employed in attaching bits to other bits. When complete - a process taking precisely 86 calendar days - each 747 is rolled out for test flying, painting and delivery. Another one will follow it four days later and so on.

This is manufacturing on a scale rarely encountered elsewhere in the world. Everett covers 1,000 acres, and contains the world's largest single building: a 3.5 million square feet assembly hall, 115 feet high. Aircraft underbellies dwarf a visitor and their tails reach the height of a five-storey building. Shrouded with scaffolding and gantries, each aircraft is recognisably a 747 but becomes progressively less complete down the line. This aircraft lacks engines, that one needs windows, and so on. Further back, the gaps become bigger: the ninety-foot wings are trucked in whole from 60 miles away on special trucks with a driver front and rear.

The precise scheduling of parts arrival is vital. Not only is there not the room to store excess wings and fuselage sections, but the aircraft have a reasonably rigid assembly sequence. For example, the tail can't be mounted before the rear fuselage has arrived. The logistics involved are much the same as in the last war. Boeing manufactures few components itself. "If we had to build the whole thing, this place would cover the county." Instead Blansett orchestrates a vast assembly operation of pre-built components - and one where component usually means something on the scale of a wing or fuselage section. The operation is as near to Just-in-Time delivery as is possible. At any one time, ships, aircraft and freight trains are all heading for Seattle with parts from round the world. Components for the 747 arrive three days before they are needed; those for the 767, with a greater overseas content, five days before. Hauling over a couple of enormous plastic models of variants of 747s, Blansett points out the origins of the parts. The litany of towns from Country and Western song titles - Wichita, Tulsa, and Dallas - is occasionally disturbed by foreign intrusions such as Belfast. Short Brothers, it transpires, manufactures the landing gear doors.

Because of the 747's sheer size, many of the larger components have to be built in the US, Blansett admits, but, "far more of the 767 is purchased abroad." A model of one of these is dragged over to be given the same treatment but with an entirely different litany of names - Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, Fuji.

Despite the enormous scale, Everett's factory floor seems strangely devoid of the thousands of people who work there. The trick is to recognise that the people are generally inside the aircraft rather than outside. "A 747 on the line can hold a hundred people," Blansett reveals.

Sign-off and release sheets are everywhere. Boeing, in common with many other manufacturers, is also climbing on to the Total Quality bandwagon, and Blansett enthuses over the potential. "There's so many good things that can come out of it. Our airplanes are high quality, but this is achieved through non-value added processes. We have to inspect it in." The manpower cost of this inspection is an increasingly expensive luxury. "We have a lot of people that just build paper," admits Blansett.

The quality message is getting through to Boeing's suppliers, too. Brad Vercoutere, responsible for procurement liaison at Everett, explains that the old arm's length relationship is giving way to close co-operation. "It's not uncommon any more to see suppliers at the factory. It's amazing the things that happen when the people who manufacture the part see how it is fitted into the aircraft." Increased competition at the larger end of the aviation marketplace - Airbus's new A340 and McDonnell-Douglas' MD11 - is doubtless bringing pressure to bear, too. When assessing suppliers' offerings, Vercoutere says, the company now tends to look beyond a part's price history to what it actually ought to cost. "We want to pay for efficiency, we can't afford to pay for inefficiency." All good stuff, but hardly revolutionary. Marks and Spencer have been doing it with knickers for years. But Boeing is a big company - and one that is more used to leading rather than following. Changing the elephant's direction - never mind getting it to dance - takes time. It's a view recognised by Ardell Anderson at the company's Renton plant, where the 737s and 757s are assembled.

"I've been with the company for 25 years," he says, "and this is the toughest assignment I've ever had." "This" turns out to be the job of heading Boeing's Total Quality programme, designed to shift the emphasis from inspecting quality to building it into each and every part and plane. It is a role not without its difficulties, for "quality" in the aviation business is - quite literally - a matter of life and death. Poor quality can be fatal for a manufacturer. The 707 - from which most of the company's present day pre-eminence derives - wasn't the world's first commercial jetliner: it was simply the first not to plunge catastrophically out of the skies. De Havilland was never really to recover from the early Comet I crashes.

Yet if Everett's Blansett is to reduce the numbers of people "just building paper" then clearly something has to take their place for Boeing to avoid the same fate. Properly managed, Total Quality can cut both costs and defects: poorly implemented, however, and the consequences could be disastrous. (The company received some unfavourable publicity in 1989 when airlines discovered that a number of automatic fire extinguishers had been installed cross-wired during assembly, with the left-hand switch controlling the right-hand extinguisher and vice versa.) Anderson, speaking slow, careful tones, explains Boeing's approach.

The Total Quality programme started in 1986, and there are now "thousands" of teams throughout the company: "hundreds" of them in Renton alone. The engineer in Anderson adopts a pained expression at this imprecision, but Boeing policy is apparently not to count the numbers of teams: they are designed to be a seamless part of the manufacturing process itself. This, it emerges, is the key to it: the role of the teams is seen as tackling the root causes of quality problems - essentially improving manufacturability - rather than simple defect prevention. "It all starts with a production related problem," he says. "It's lots of little things - but they all add up." He is careful to emphasise the training that the teams receive, and the management commitment that backs it up. The company has also taken steps to ensure that its customers' perceptions of quality match manufacturing's. Rather than simply contrive some measures to chart and track, Anderson recalls, "We went to the airlines and asked: 'What sort of defects ought we to be measuring?' The objective, he says, is to move away from a measure based on defects to one based on customer satisfaction. Down on the Renton production line, this same message is hammered home by Boyd F Brown III, a 14-year Boeing veteran who manages the 737 and 757 programme. Controlling the load on scarce engineering and manufacturing resources is vital, so "our rule is to keep to one new customer airline a month", though it's a rule that "we break if we have to". Considering that Renton produces a new 737 every working day - and a 757 every two and a half days, this shows how difficult it can be to deal with a new customer's requirements. "Engineering changes are expensive," Brown warns.

No longer can the customer specify the aircraft in his own words: "I'll have this sort of galley here, and this sort there - oh, and a toilet here, and another one there." Instead, they receive an enormous Configuration Specification Manual and told to choose from standard menus of priced options. This substantially reduces both the engineering design load and the number of variants.

Having to crawl through the complete option list also means fewer last minute re-thinks and changes, as customers suddenly decide that they need odd bits and pieces that they hadn't thought of. It also, says Brown, offers airlines more variety: having a price list to choose from means that they can have as standard something that they might not have even considered before, having imagined it to be a costly "special".

Unlike troubled BAe, Boeing doesn't run business parks or car factories: its people concentrate on making aircraft - and work hard at making them more efficiently and more profitably, playing for high stakes in a business notoriously unforgiving of failure. Boeing manager after manager speaks in terms of "one small step at a time" and "we'll crack this problem first, and then solve that one."

Aircraft buffs disdainfully dismiss the ubiquitous 737 as boring, preferring instead the hi-tech Airbus 320, or the rather more contemporaneous (and long out of production) British offerings, the Trident and One-Eleven. This would seem to miss the point. With over 2,100 in service, the 737 is the best selling commercial aircraft in aviation history. Almost unbelievably, another 800 are on order. Boring or not, it's a formula that works. Sir Graham Day, BAe's new chairman, should take this on board.

BILL BOEING'S LEGACY

Founded in Seattle, Washington in July 1916 by Bill Boeing

1990 SALES: $27.6 billion.

ACTIVITIES: Commercial aircraft (737, 747, 757, 767 and 777) Military and Space (B2 bomber, V-22 Osprey, AWACS, helicopters, systems)

WORLDWIDE EMPLOYMENT: 158,000

SEATTLE AREA EMPLOYMENT: 105,000

1990 COMMERCIAL AIRCRAFT ORDERS: 543 aircraft, value $47.7 billion

1991 COMMERCIAL AIRCRAFT ORDERS TO SEPTEMBER 11: 165 aircraft, value $14.4 billion

TOTAL COMMERCIAL JET ORDERS (INCLUDING PAST DELIVERIES): 8,300 aircraft, more than all world's other commercial jet producers combined (excluding USSR)

PRODUCTION RATES: 737 = 21 per month 747 = 5 per month 757 = 7 per month (8.5 in 1992) 767 = 5 per month.

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