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Boeing 737 MAX 9
A photographer takes a picture of the first Boeing 737 MAX 9 jet during its assembly at the company’s Renton plant. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

RENTON, Wash. – One year after Boeing’s super-fuel-efficient 737 MAX 8 jet made its aerial debut, its bigger sibling – the MAX 9 – is just weeks away from its rollout.

The 737 MAX 9 nearly 9 feet longer and should be able to carry up to 20 more passengers than the first MAX variant to roll down the runway. The assembly process takes advantage of new technologies, including a streamlined robotic system to drill the holes and screw in the bolts on the plane’s wings.

Boeing’s engineers have come up with new tricks for putting the planes together and testing them. But the biggest difference between getting the MAX 8 and the MAX 9 ready for prime time has to do with human factors, says Keith Leverkuhn, Boeing’s vice president and general manager for the 737 MAX program.

“I don’t think with respect to the design, the supply chain, there’s anything like that that gives us pause on what we ought to be doing on the Dash 9,” he told reporters at Boeing’s Renton plant on Monday during a sneak peek at the first MAX 9 and the assembly lines where it’s being built.

“But one thing that I would expect is that as we move through the flight tests of the past year, there are internal efficiencies that we should be able to gain,” Leverkuhn said. “Can we be sure that we’ve got the right team in place, with what I call full kits: parts, plans, tools ready to go?”

Leverkuhn, his teams and their tools have to be ready to go for what’s shaping up as one of Boeing’s biggest ramp-ups in years, centered on the 737 MAX program. The boom in sales for the single-aisle 737 comes in contrast to the slowdown in sales for the larger jets that Boeing makes in Everett, Wash. That slowdown is a big factor behind Boeing’s current wave of job reductions.

The 737 is historically the world’s biggest-selling airplane, and the Renton plant already produces two of them every workday, adding up to 42 a month. In the months ahead, the production rate will work its way up to 47 a month.

Boeing’s 737 strategy calls for assembling 52 jets a month in 2018, and 57 a month in 2019, at the same time that the company is transitioning from the tried-and-true “Next Generation” 737s to the new MAX variants.

“By the end of the decade, we’ll be building MAXes entirely,” Boeing spokesman Adam Tischler said.

And then what? Company executives are already musing over what it would take to double the current 737 production rate if they had to. That’s not part of the current game plan, but if the market for 737s continues to expand, Boeing needs to be ready to keep pace.

“We will never be given the luxury of standing still,” Leverkuhn said.

There’s already a backlog of more than 4,400 orders for the various breeds of the 737, which translates to an eight-year wait for deliveries at the current rate.

Leverkuhn said the 737 program is on track for its first MAX 8 deliveries to Norwegian Air in May. Meanwhile, the MAX 9 should be ready for its rollout and an employee celebration by early March, followed by its first flight test. The smaller MAX 7 is 90 percent of the way to getting off the drawing boards, and a stretch version known as the MAX 10 is in the works as well.

The MAX planes are designed to be 14 percent more fuel-efficient than their Next Generation predecessors, thanks to the MAX’s upgraded CFM LEAP engines and design tweaks ranging from dual-feather winglets to a streamlined tail cone.

The assembly process is being streamlined as well, to mesh with Boeing’s strategy of reducing costs and staying competitive with Airbus, its European archrival.

One part of that strategy involves automation: On the Renton plant’s spar assembly line, two quartets of next-generation robotic drilling machines are putting together wing components at an unprecedented rate. The 10 old-style automatic spar assembly tools, or ASATs, will be removed to free up more space on the floor, said Barry Lewis, Boeing’s director of 737 wing operations.

“It’s about an 80 percent footprint reduction and a 33 percent improvement in throughput to get to our future rates,” Lewis said. “What’s really neat is the auto-tool changer. We’ve integrated robots into the system so that you don’t have to have that manual tool change operation.”

SAL operators
Spar assembly line operators Jeff Armstrong and Larry Freeman monitor the robotic drilling machines at Boeing’s Renton plant (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Because of the greater efficiencies, Leverkuhn expects the 737 program’s employment levels to stay steady, even as the production rate rises. “We’re set for the time being in terms of overall employment here,” he said.

More automation requires more worker training, as well as more of a willingness to deal with the technical glitches that accompany the advent of new machines.

Some employees may worry that robots will soak up the work that should be going to humans instead, but Lewis sees the issue differently.

“We introduce automation where it makes sense,” he said. “We’re clever about how we put automated cells in the floor space that is available, so we can free up other floor space for the future. We’re going up in rate, and more planes means more jobs.”

Darwin Stachowiak, a team leader for the MAX wing operation in Renton, says the issue is more about guaranteeing that the jobs being done today will carry over to the next generation.

“I’m third-generation here at Boeing, and my kids, I hope, will be fourth-generation,” he said. “For them to be able to build a career at this company would be awesome. Building things more efficiently, more safely will help secure our build here in Renton.”

Darwin Stachowiak
Boeing team leader Darwin Stachowiak chats with reporters in front of a 747 MAX 9 wing assembly. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)
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