After SilkAir’s delivery ceremony for the airline’s first new 737-800 and the dinner at the Museum of Flight that evening, you’d think I’d be all geeked-out. You’d be wrong. I was extremely excited for what happened the following day, a tour of Boeing’s 737 factory in Renton.
[Disclosure: This trip was paid for by SilkAir]
This plant has a long and storied history dating back to World War II. All of Boeing’s narrowbody jets were built here, though today it’s only the 737 that remains in production.
The factory itself has three long cores with offices, hallways, restaurants, etc. One is on each side of the building and there’s one down the middle. In between those are two large production floors with big doors on either end leading outside. Today, there is one production line on each side, but that will be changing as production ramps up.
While this is a factory, these airplanes aren’t built from scratch in here. The fuselage is built in Kansas and shipped by rail. Wing work is done at the plant but it’s increasingly being moved into another building to make room for more final assembly. When all the pieces are ready, each airplane arrives at the front door to the final assembly building from where it will take 10 days to complete.
When the airplanes first come in, they are first put into an area where they are outfitted with a variety of electrical and mechanical systems. Then they get the wings and other appendages attached.
Above, you can see some random rudders lying on the ground, freshly painted and ready to go on to an airplane. (I’ll explain why that happens in the order it does later.) In the back, you can see a new American Airlines 737 tail coming together. To the left is a United 737 in progress.
Once the big parts are put together, the airplane is put on a slowly-moving assembly line (pioneered on the 717 in Long Beach, I believe) where work is done daily until the aircraft reaches the factory exit door completed.
When we were there, we were taken directly to SilkAir’s second 737-800 already in production. In the photo above, you see the Transavia aircraft in the foreground with the SilkAir plane beyond. That empty space behind Transavia? We were there in the final days of their 38 aircraft per month production schedule. They were just ramping up to 42, and the line was set for that. But there were a couple of blanks in there until the ramp-up was completed.
You can see on the rudder that the SilkAir logo has been painted but the rest of the aircraft is green. What’s up with that? Apparently the control surfaces are so sensitive that they need to paint them in advance and specifically test and balance them to make sure paint was applied evenly so it won’t impact the aircraft’s flying ability. The rest of the airplane will be painted after it leaves the factory.
If you’ve ever wondered what’s under a nosecone, you now know. Or not. They actually put weather radar equipment in there.
We walked up to the airplane and got an up close view of the insane number of rivets bringing the metal frame together. Sadly, this is a view we won’t see forever now that composites are being used more frequently.
On the inside, it may look far from done but we’re actually only 3 days away from it rolling out of the factory here. The floor and side panels are in. Up top, you can see the black overhead bin casings. There are bundles running through the ceiling carrying a silly amount of wiring throughout the airplane.
Looking out the emergency exit, or where the exit should be, they’re still working on the wing.
As mentioned, in just three days the airplane will be on its way out of the factory. It will still need to be painted, and flight tested before it’s eventually delivered to the airline.
The idea that Boeing cranks out 42 of these per month is mind-boggling. But it’s going to grow even more. They’ve been clearing space on the floor so that they can start a third line on one side. That line will start building the 737 MAX in 2017. It will bring production levels up to 47 per month with the ability to go higher if needed. The old lines will begin making more and more MAXs as demand for the current NG versions dry up.
Thanks to Boeing for giving an excellent, close-up tour.