The Boeing Co.’s radical revamp of how it makes its twin-aisle 777 has cleared early challenges that hampered airplane production for months. At the time, the company’s top executives publicly downplayed the issues, even as mechanics hustled to rework planes with hundreds of unfinished jobs.
Those days are gone, and Boeing expects the new production system — a leap in manufacturing automation — to turn out all 777 fuselage sections in the coming months. Workers assemble the airplane’s body in three sections — forward, mid-body and aft — which are then joined together. The company had hoped to be making all three fuselage sections with the new process by now.
Now, Boeing only makes every other one of the 777’s forward fuselage section using the new technology. Workers started a few months ago making mid-body fuselage sections. They plan to be at full production rate — which is dropping from 8.3 to seven airplanes a month — for forward and mid-body sections in three to six months. They also will soon turn out the aft section, starting around April.
To get the most out of the automated systems, Boeing engineers have made design changes to the 777 and 777X. When the robots struggled to drive rivets in some areas, designers swapped out the type of fastener for a threaded pin called a Hi-Lok, said Jason Clark, Boeing vice president of 777/777X operations.
The new process is called Fuselage Automated Upright Build — typically shortened to FAUB (pronounced “fob”). It is being incorporated, along with other technological advances, in conjunction with Boeing’s new 777X airliner, which is currently in development and slated for first delivery in 2020. Not far from the FAUB building is a sprawling new factory for making the 777X’s composite material wings.
Boeing has gone to great lengths on the 777X program to avoid the sort of production problems that plagued the 787, which arrived more than three years late and billions of dollars over budget. So, they opted to launch FAUB with the 777, which Boeing has been producing since the early 1990s. Boeing and KUKA, which makes the robotic machines used in FAUB, spent months testing them in Anacortes, before bringing them down to Everett last year.