The Wall Street Journal had an interesting story on process changes at Boeing that aim to produce more 737s without having to expand the size of their Renton, Washington, factory (Boeing Teams Speed Up 737 Output, Feb 7). The scale of what they are trying to do is pretty impressive.
Workers here recently boosted 737 output to 35 jets a month from 31.5, and Chicago-based Boeing aims to produce 42 planes a month in 2014. Executives said they are studying ways to eventually reach 60 a month as they plan a retooled version of the plane called the 737 Max, a jet that Boeing expects to begin delivering in 2017. The company is trying to pare an order backlog of some 3,700 jetliners, including about 2,300 of its best-selling 737s. …
“How do you produce more aircraft without expanding the building?” is the question Boeing managers in Renton continually focus on, said Eric Lindblad, vice president for 737 manufacturing operations. “Space is the forcing function that means you’ve gotta be creative.”
So how are they are going about this? Largely by applying lean operations with cross-functional teams focusing on different parts of the plane.
Boeing’s employee teams are composed of workers with varying backgrounds-from mechanics to engineers-and tend to focus on a specific part of a jet, such as the galleys. Teams meet as often as once a week and typically have seven to 10 members.
The changes they have implemented range from the seemingly simple to fairly complex changes. For example, planes on the line now have canvas covers on the landing gear wheels. Why? Because they keep dropped fasteners and such from getting caught in the tires and causing punctures. It’s a simple approach that has a fairly big impact, saving about a quarter of a million per year.
A more involved solution dealt with how they installed all the hydraulics for the landing gear.
Some employee projects take years to bear fruit. One group, for example, spent about five years on a new process for assembling the hydraulic tubes that go into the landing-gear wheel well of the 737.
Boeing workers used to crowd in the wheel well, installing roughly 650 individual tubes, a process that took up one day shift and part of the night shift for each jet. Employees in other roles had to work around the four day-shift mechanics. It was “a very delicately timed ballet,” said Buford Neal, a ponytailed team leader for the wheel-well installers
Mr. Neal was part of a roster of engineers, mechanics and other employees who figured out how to have about 25 assemblies of the tubes made at another Boeing plant.
Now, assembly line workers including mechanic Gabriel Holguin in Renton, Wash., install these larger pieces, along with fewer than 100 individual tubes, saving roughly 30 hours of mechanics’ time on each airplane. The new system, which took effect in 2010 but continues to be refined, also has substantially reduced the amount of hydraulic leaks its 737s have in service, Boeing officials said.
The gain from all this is that planes now only spend eleven days on the assembly line when a decade ago they spent 22. They hope to soon get it down to nine. All and all, this is a nice example of how relatively small changes in a large process lead cumulatively to big gains.