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Building a 747: 43 Days and 3 Million Fasteners

By Faye BowersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 29, 1997



EVERETT, WASH.

Everything about Boeing Co. seems gargantuan - its work force, its factory here, its $34 billion in sales so far this year.

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But now, for the second time in a decade, turning a bulging orderbook into planes is straining the company's production lines.

Earlier this month, Boeing halted production on two lines - the 747 jumbo jets and its 737 planes. A month-long reprieve is intended to allow employees and parts suppliers to catch up with a backlog of work.

As Boeing pauses amid a push to achieve its highest production rates ever, the company and the Federal Aviation Administration are taking a closer look at quality. Both say safety has not been compromised, but veteran employees have raised concerns about the way planes are being assembled.

"Quality certainly was an issue in shutting down the production line," says Mark Sanders, Boeing's director of quality assurance. "The number of rejection tags was up."

Building an airplane is a complex, if not monumental, undertaking. There are 6 million parts on one 747, for example - 40,000 rivets on each wing. Over the 43 days it takes to build a jumbo jet, workers here fill in a bar chart each time one of 14,000 individual jobs is completed. A single plane may be tagged with as many as 1,000 rejection slips before it is finished.

The process starts with all those parts arriving from suppliers in 50 states and 45 countries. At the receiving warehouse, parts are tested at random - or more often depending on the supplier - for defects.

On a recent visit, quality-assurance technician Mike Kirby was running a computerized test on a roller assembly for a wing flap drive. "This part ... is holding up three airplanes in the factory right now," he says.

Parts then move to one of three production lines - 747s, 767s, or the new 777s. This is the world's largest building: nine stories high, 2-1/2 miles around, with six football-field-size garage doors. Workers ride 3,000 bicycles to jobs within the building.

Each production line forms a rough oval, where major sections of a plane come together. Flannel-shirt-clad workers clamber over sections of 747s. Nearest a garage door, the wings take shape. Huge support beams are placed inside the wings, which double as fuel tanks. After a tank's interior is sealed and painted, the tank is filled with ammonia to ensure it doesn't leak, says quality assurance manager Dave Fox.

AFTER each section is completed, it's given a "shakedown" inspection. Boeing employs 2,540 quality-assurance personnel at Everett to go over some 14 planes produced here each month. They check that fasteners are inserted correctly, parts fit properly, and nothing has been left inside the wings or damaged "by people climbing around inside," says Mr. Fox.

Rejected work is marked with red or blue tape. Each rejection tag requires an engineer to provide written instructions on how to correct the mistake.

The customer can also inspect the work at this stage. Some Boeing clients, such as British Airways, have a contingent of engineers who inspect their planes at every stage. But most use Boeing inspectors designated as customer-service representatives.

Boeing also employs 40 people who work on behalf of the FAA. The three posted in this factory randomly check completed jobs, although the FAA says more inspectors may be added as the production pace picks up.

Near the end of the production line, major sections are fitted together. The wings are attached to the center fuel tank, then the aft section is joined to the center. The front section is added, followed by vertical and horizontal stabilizers. Finally, the plane gets finishing touches - carpeting and seats.

The plane is towed from the factory to the paint hangar. There, it is buffed, painted, and readied for its first flight test. The plane is tested by a Boeing pilot and then by a customer pilot. If all goes as planned, the FAA issues an airworthiness certificate.

The quality controls in place today reflect lessons learned during the peak production push in the late 1980s. "We learned a lot from the last time we went through this," Robert Dryden, Boeing's executive vice president, told The Wall Street Journal last week. But, the current work stoppage notwithstanding, Boeing's plans still call for pushing out 552 planes a year by 1999, shattering the 1992 record of 446 planes.