Everett-built carbon fiber wings key to Boeing's future

By Debra Vaughn
(Everett) Herald Business Journal

Take a drive down Highway 526 and look north toward the cranes and trucks and workers building the future of not only Boeing but an entire region.

Contractors are creating a new 1.3 million-square-foot factory where Boeing workers will eventually fabricate airplane wings for a new family of twin-aisle airplanes called the 777X.

The new plane marries the technology of the popular 777 with the material advances of the fuel-efficient Dreamliner. When the first 777X rolls off the factory floor sometime around 2020, it will be the largest and most efficient twin-engine jet in the world.

That efficiency largely comes from the wings that will be fabricated from a super light and strong carbon fiber composite material. At a groundbreaking ceremony, Boeing chief executive officer Ray Conner called them “the most phenomenal wings in the world.” He said the composite wings would take Boeing into the next century.

A lot of the future is riding on those wings.

The Composite Wing Center secures a future for Boeing in Everett and all that comes with it: good-paying jobs, tax revenue and the pump of steady paychecks into the local economy.

Boeing declined to say exactly how many jobs the new 777X will create but did say that it would increase employment on the 777 group by 10 percent.

Boeing’s move toward more advanced manufacturing techniques sets the stage for other companies to cluster here.

For instance, KUKA Aerospace, a division of the largest robotics companies in the world, just opened a facility near Boeing and is on tap to create the automated system that will build the fuselage of the 777X.

“We have a renewed confidence this industry will be here for a minimum of the next few decades,” said Alex Pietsch, director of the state Office of Aerospace. “The decision to build the 777X here will interest companies around the world who want to be here and make investments.

“Companies already here are expanding as they ramp up to meet increased production rates. It’s exciting.”

When the Composite Wing Center is complete, it will hold automated equipment that fabricates the components of the 235-foot wings: the wing spars, wing skins and stringers.

Equipment will wind carbon fiber layers around a form and then the parts will be cured in 120-foot-long autoclaves. The components will then be assembled elsewhere in the Everett site.

Carbon-fiber composites are prized for a high strength-to-weight ratio.

They don’t easily fatigue like metal or corrode. They’re easy to mold and shape and bonded structures are smoother and more aerodynamic than those that are riveted.

On the downside, carbon-fiber composites require special storage and handling and expensive equipment to create. They require a skilled work force to create and repair. And composites are expensive.

There’s an incredible demand beyond Boeing for skilled workers who know how to fabricate and repair composites, said Patrick Murphy, an instructor for Everett Community College’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology Composites program.

By his own audit, as many as 180 companies in the county manufacture or in some way work with composites in industries such as aerospace, marine, wind or the military.

The Everett Community College program regularly has a waiting list for the 20 slots in its program. The program is adding another 20 slots.

The use of composite materials isn’t new in many industries.

Manufacturers routinely use composites for bikes, tennis rackets and other sporting goods. Composites in various forms are used in tubs, showers and sinks. Advanced composites are used in boats and aircraft.

BMW opened a plant in Moses Lake in Eastern Washington in 2011 that will provide carbon fiber parts for the i3 and i8 models.

Both models will be assembled in Leipzig, Germany.

The Boeing Co. and the BMW Group announced in 2012 that they had agreed to collaborate on research on carbon fiber recycling.

The companies also said they would share carbon fiber manufacturing process simulations and ideas for manufacturing automation.

Snohomish County is becoming something of a hub for advanced manufacturing, which includes carbon-fiber composites, said Troy McClelland, president of Economic Alliance Snohomish County.

Boeing is spending more than $1 billion dollars on the Composite Wing Center. Contractors are working at breakneck speed to get the building finished by May 2016.

Production is scheduled to begin the following year with the first aircraft ready for customers in 2020. That’s a tight timeline.

“Customers have told us they need this aircraft in their business cycle,” said Eric Lindblad, vice president of the Wing Integration 777X Program. “We’re on an accelerated timeline.

“We have to build an entire building, get the equipment installed and start production.”

With so much on the line, easy working relationships with city officials who handle permitting was one factor in deciding to locate production in Everett, he said.

Contractors got a seven week head start after local and state officials worked together to streamline the permitting process.

Another factor was the successful approval of an eight-year contract extension with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 751 that included an agreement by Boeing to fabricate and assemble the wings of the 777X in the Puget Sound.

Statewide, the composites industry offers the potential for tens of thousands of skilled labor jobs, according to the state Department of Commerce.

State employers engage in composites last year employed more than 10,000 workers — that’s up from nearly 8,400 in 2011. That excludes jobs at Boeing.

Boeing and composite supplier Toray Industries pioneered the use of prepreg composites — a combination of high-strength carbon fiber and toughened epoxy resin — in the 1970s. By 1994, assemblies including the empennage and floor beams were being produced for the 777 program.

In 2004, Boeing launched the Dreamliner, which had more composite material than any other commercial airplane.

The 777X is the next iteration. It is expected to boast 12 percent lower fuel consumption and 10 percent lower operating costs than the competition.

That’s appealing to customers who above all else want an aircraft that is efficient to operate, said Lindblad, the vice president of the Wing Integration 777X program.

The only ways to affect efficiency are to improve engine performance, design a more aerodynamic aircraft or reduce weight.

The 787 with its higher make up of composites was a quantum leap over its aluminum predecessors, and Boeing learned how to better apply these composites, he said.

The company opted to use more composite material on the wings of the 777X, rather than the fuselage, because that’s where the strength and lightness of composites make the biggest difference in weight.


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