Boeing’s New Workforce


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Last summer, my family and I took a trek up north to Vancouver and visited the Boeing plant in Everett, Washington on the way there. We were carefully chaperoned through the plant with all photography equipment banned. The shear mass of these planes is impressive, along with the thousands of workers hunched over riveting the same function over and over again. I remarked to my wife, “they need to hire some robots to streamline this process.” Well, maybe our tour was bugged because this past week they announced their newest hires…

During the second quarter earnings call with analysts Wednesday, Boeing Co. CEO Jim McNerney said the recently announced plan to automate assembly of the 777 fuselage is just the start.

“I think it’s safe to say that over time we would anticipate expanding that capability,” he said in response to a question about other aircraft models.

McNerney said the automation drive is intended to accomplish three things: increasing the quality of aircraft, cutting costs, and improving worker safety. As an example of the latter, he said he recently visited Boeing’s Everett manufacturing plant, where he saw Boeing’s automated 777-wing paint facility at work.

“A terrific job is being done to use automaton to paint major structures,” he said.

The new robotic painting machines are responsible for washing, applying solvents to, rinsing, and spraying two types of paint to 106-foot 777 wings and are capable of reaching into some of the more complex spaces within the wing for corrosive protection. The robots glide along tracks set to either side of the wing and are able to crane their animatronic necks to provide a perfect paint coat. Painting the wings manually would take a team of painters 4.5 hours, but the robots are able to get the job done in just 24 minutes.

To the critics that say robots are replacing jobs, Jason Clark, Boeing’s director of 777 manufacturing, was quick to point out that “no layoffs occurred because of the implementation of this technology.” To compensate for the machine takeover, half of the 777 wing-painting team have been reassigned to related jobs, such as programming the robots or painting more complex parts of the plane that can’t be handled by a robot, such as painting the airline liveries, or handling the aerodynamic finish required for the 787-9 tails.

Elizabeth Lund, head of the 777 program, said that the previous, manual painting method had been a solid barrier to increasing production rates. But thanks to Boeing’s lean-manufacturing-inspired switch to robotic painters, the company has been able to increase its output to 100 jets per year—which comes out to 32 wings more than was previously possible.

“When lean works properly, and this is a perfect example, you increase capacity and you don’t lay people off,” Lund said.

The inspiration for Boeing came on a trip last year to the BMW factory in Munich, which is run by hundreds of automated systems with the help of just a few workers. But while 95 percent automation is becoming a new norm for the auto industry, Clark notes that Boeing is 90 percent manual, and that an aircraft factory will likely never meet that rate of automation.

According to McNerney, Boeing is expanding its use of automation to build the 737 wing. The company will first start automating the drilling and riveting on the current 777 fuselage and then expand that to the initial 777X line.

By following the Boeing example, one can see that humans are now empowered to use their brains instead of repetitive tasks to insure that costs, quality, and safety are all in line. It’s about time.

Reprinted by Permission.
Image Credit: CC by Cloudsurfer_UK

About the author: Oliver Mitchell

Oliver Mitchell is a seasoned entrepreneur and business executive with more than 20 years of marketing / operating experience. Previously, he was the Chairman & Chief Creative Officer of RobotGalaxy, a retail entertainment brand that he founded in 2006.

As father of five, Oliver launched RobotGalaxy to fill a personal need: he wanted a wholesome activity for his son. Today, RobotGalaxy’s patented toys are available nationally at Toys’R’Us, Nordstrom Department Stores, and online with a growing virtual world and library of mobile apps.

Before RobotGalaxy, Oliver was involved in a number of successful technology ventures and real estate developments. Oliver was part of the executive team of Softcom/IVT, an interactive video startup backed by Allen & Co., Intel Capital (NASDAQ:INTC) and Sun Microsystems. At IVT, Oliver was instrumental in expanding the market for their products with such leading broadcasters as HBO, Showtime, and Home Shopping Network.

Prior to IVT, Oliver was a founding member of AmeriCash, Inc., a network of ATMs in high traffic retail locations. AmeriCash was acquired by American Express (NYSE:AXP) within 32 months of operations. Oliver was also instrumental in the development of Holmes Protection and its sale to ADT/Tyco International (NYSE:TYC). Oliver has extensive background in merchant banking and advertising. He started his career at Kirshenbaum, Bond & Partners.

Oliver holds 14 patents and has appeared on numerous television shows, including: The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch, Fox Business News, The Today Show, and Rachel Ray. He also serves as a mentor on the Entrepreneur Roundtable Accelerator Fund, and advises many technology companies on their growth strategies.

Oliver is also the publisher of the well-known robotics blog Robot Rabbi and is in the midst of writing a book entitled, “An Innovator’s Field Guide: Taking Ideas From Zero to Hero.”

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