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A worker keeps watch on a riveting robot inside the mid-body fuselage of a 777 jet. (Boeing Photo)

Boeing’s moves to automate its manufacturing processes and streamline the quality assurance process for its airplanes has sparked discussions with union officials over the effect on jobs.

The controversy came to light in the current issue of Aero Mechanic — the newspaper published by the International Association of Machinists’ District 751, which represents Boeing assembly workers — and in The Seattle Times.

Union leaders are concerned about a Boeing campaign known as “Quality Transformation,” which relies on automated processes such as robotic riveting and precision machining to cut down on manufacturing defects. Boeing says such processes make airplane assembly more “mistake-proof.”

Aero Mechanic said Boeing laid out its plans and their potential effect on quality-assurance jobs in November.

“Per the PowerPoint Boeing presented to our union, Boeing estimates their plan will impact 451 QA jobs next year and potentially a similar amount in 2020,” the newspaper reported. “This will not only place a heavier burden on our mechanics but will also eliminate the second set of eyes on thousands of work packages.”

Boeing currently has more than 3,000 quality inspectors, The Seattle Times said.

During a series of meetings last month, Machinists Union District 751 asked its members to document occasions when they were discouraged from reporting problems on the assembly floor.

“The company is taking advantage of QA and manufacturing working together essentially masking defects and coming back later with a ‘risk assessment process’ to eliminate inspections where there were no documented defects,” the Aero Mechanic report claimed.

The union calls its counter-campaign “Not OK to Cut QA.”

In an email to GeekWire, Paul Bergman, a spokesman for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said he couldn’t confirm employment figures but sent along a statement laying out Boeing’s perspective on the Quality Transformation drive:

“Our highest priority is the quality and safety of our products.

“Boeing has strict methods which ensure our final products comply with design and regulatory requirements.

“We are strengthening our approach to quality and putting resources in place to bolster our focus on preventing defects throughout our production system. Built-in quality helps us mistake-proof our processes.

“A small fraction of our evolution includes streamlining redundant inspections for processes which are proven to be stable. This gives team members capacity to focus on preventing defects. Mechanics performing the actual job will always verify and ensure the work meets certification standards. These are instances where a quality inspector is a second set of eyes for a consistently stable process already verified by the mechanic. Reducing this second-layer process allows mechanics to complete the task, verify it and move on to new jobs with greater efficiency and productivity. It also creates more capacity for team members to focus on defect prevention.

“We will always keep redundant inspections in critical safety operations.”

“As we identify and reduce second-layer inspections for stable processes, Quality Assurance professionals will be redeployed and take on new roles such as leading and supporting efforts to prevent defects and rework. Many team members are already performing this important and valuable work.

“We are evaluating the work that will be impacted, and have not yet established the number of job transitions affected as part of this evolving process. We do not anticipate that these changes will result in the loss of jobs, in fact we are hiring at this time. We are actively engaged in discussions with the union to address potential impacts to our employees’ work statement.”

Update for 10 p.m. PT Jan. 21: Connie Kelliher, a spokeswoman for Machinists Union District 751, sent along this statement via email:

“To date, Boeing has not shared with us what procedures they have implemented to ensure a manufacturing process is stable and defect-free before removing inspections. It would only make sense to remove inspections and assign workers to other roles after extensive studies prove by a specific, definitive and consistent standard that there are extremely low defects.

“We will continue to ask questions in an effort to better understand the methods used to determine whether a manufacturing process is stable enough to remove inspections. Again, Boeing has not shown us any specific studies or changes to their processes that justify removing inspections.

“Removing thousands of inspections per airplane will negatively impact the manufacturing process and push defects down line, causing additional out-of-sequence work, increased costs, more rework, higher injury rates to our members, more work at the end of the manufacturing process and potentially late deliveries.

“Our members have a vested interest in this company’s success, and we are trying to prevent them from making decisions that negatively impact production and could potentially cost our members their livelihoods.

“We are asking our members to provide information to the union to help prove why this is a short-sighted idea that will ultimately jeopardize the manufacturing process our members have worked so hard to perfect.”

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