By Mike Gold, a retired entrepreneur "living the dream in the Pacific Northwest."
I took our eldest son through the Boeing plant tour. I hadn’t done that since about 2006.
Boy has the tour changed. Let’s start with the 747 production line. If any factory could be looked at as “dead men walking,” that line was it. They told us they are now assembling one 747/month – and may cut that to one plane every two months in the near future. Most of you have seen 747s, in fact have probably flown on a 747. But when you are looking down on one from the viewing balcony inside the Boeing plant, you really get a chance to view the sheer size of that plane.
The current model is heavily sold as a freighter. The reason the 747 is no longer a top seller as a passenger plane is that it has four engines. There are so many twin-engine wide body airplanes from both Boeing and Airbus, that for a very large percentage of flights you don’t need a 747. The newest Boeing plane, the 787, consumes a fraction of the fuel appetite of the 747 and it has a very good range (nautical miles - 8,350 mi for the 747-400, 7,400 mi for the 787-10 and an astounding 10,012 mi for the soon to fly 777X). And the newest iteration of the 787, the 787-10, can be configured with as many as 330 seats. The maximum capacity of the 747 is over 500 seats – but those are configured for the Asian market (and no I’m not a bigot) where they can squeeze in many more seats for the average Asian sized person. I related my recent experience flying an Airbus A320 with non-adjustable seat backs in a recent column in this publication: "Travel Travails." Trust me, you don’t want to fly from here to someplace deep into Asia (13 or more hours in the air) crammed into such a small space. If you have a tendency toward pulmonary thrombosis you want to avoid sitting in a small space for more than an hour or so. Or far worse, imagine having a small screaming child in the row in front of you – standing up on their seat and staring you in the face and babbling incoherently for 13 hours. Hara-Kari would look good about then.
Next on the tour was the 767/777 line. Now this was a “production line.” There were airplanes lined up nose to tail with sub-sections of the fuselage being put together directly next to the final assembly line. And hundreds of production people scurrying about. In fact, our elevator (a gigantic one – normally used to move large sub assemblies from delivery into the production areas) was occupied delivering parts so we had to use the smaller “passenger” elevator to get up to the viewing balcony.
Next was the 787 line. This will be, in fact, a real “moving” production line. That is the airplanes while being assembled will actually move down the line (in a technique borrowed from Henry Ford and the automobile industry and which is currently being used in Boeing’s Renton plant where they assemble the 737 and 737 NEO at an astounding rate of up to 60 planes/month).
Many of you have read up on the massive production teething problems Boeing had with this airplane. For the first time, Boeing contracted out some of the R&D development costs to their production partners in Japan, Italy and elsewhere in exchange for the production contracts. I find one of the most interesting aspects of 787 production is that they fly large sub-assemblies (wings, tail, etc. in to Everett inside of the 747 Boeing Dreamlifter – a specially modified 747 – which has always resembled – at least to me – a Dolphin). I also find it amazing that this airplane can fly at all. It looks so un-airworthy. At any rate, Boeing had lots of integration issues getting the early sub-assemblies to actually fit with each other.
A couple of interesting sub-notes re Boeing. First, they sell the airplane without its engines. The purchaser contracts directly with the engine supplier (ex. GE, Rolls Royce, etc). The engines cost upwards of $25 million each. But as a courtesy, Boeing does assemble the engines onto the plane and do all the testing (nice of them!). Next, according to the tour guide, when the plane is finally delivered to its customer at Everett, Boeing supplies sufficient fuel for the airplane to take off. Any additional fuel is optional. Next, the 787 is also assembled in Boeing’s South Carolina plant. The even serial number planes are made in Everett, odd numbers in S. Carolina.
Last interesting fact. All modern passenger jet planes use high by-pass turbo engines. I did not know this prior to the tour. This means the very large fan at the front of the engine (on a 747 – you can easily have a 6 foot tall man stand in the opening directly in front of the fan) is spun by the jet engine via a shaft that connects to the fan in front of the actual engine. What I learned is that a large percentage of the thrust of the engine is generated by this fan pushing air through its enclosure – but not through the actual engine (which combusts jet fuel). Most military jet planes do not use this type of engine. It is most efficient at roughly the speed most commercial jets fly (650 mph or so).
We were told during the tour that some rich individual purchased a 747 as a birthday present for his 18 year old daughter. No it was not Donald Trump. The “list price” of a 747 (with no engines) is about $350 million.
Last point about Boeing: their work in carbon fiber composites has launched a large cottage industry in the Pacific Northwest. Lots of other companies (BMW for one) have started either R&D operations here or actual assembly operations to take advantage of the knowledge base located in our region.
We should thank Boeing for having the foresight to start down this road. Even today, Airbus has no equivalent airplane to the 787. They are moving to composite parts (as is the 777X – which has composite wings).