As Boeing escalates twin-aisle output well beyond all historic limits, the corporate strategy encounters on each 777 on the assembly line roughly 1 million little speed bumps called fasteners.
Until about 22 months ago, Boeing workers bashed all of these humble latching mechanisms into the 777 by hand - actually, many hands. To install a fastener usually requires one worker to create a hole and then a two-person team to fill it, with the first person hammering and the second applying an anvil called a bucking bar that flattens and secures the rivet on the other side. It's a procedure that has changed little in the 97-year history of Boeing's existence, and requires a level of human precision and craftsmanship that feels almost quaint in an era of automated mass production.
"You've got to position the hammer right and put the right amount of pressure on it, or you can basically over-mash it or over-compress it and then you've got to take it out and do it over it again," says Jason Clark, director of 777 manufacturing. "So it takes a lot of skill and a lot of craftsmanship."
Boeing still hasn't quite mastered the science of automating the two-person filling and bucking job, but it has finally invented a machine to replace the driller. Boeing started developing the Flex-track machine several years ago, and partnered with Washington-based robotic specialist Electroimpact to industrialise the system. Flex-track started drilling holes in 777 fuselage skins in August 2011.
"The day we opened the box, we got a 93% improvement in hull quality," Clark says.
It is one of many small improvements that Boeing has made since increasing the 777 production rate from 36 in 2004 to 100 in 2013, and reflects Boeing's new strategy to respond faster to peaks and troughs in the market cycle.
"It is about creating a flexible production system, a system that can adjust to rate," Clark says "If it takes us 18 to 24 months to adjust the rate, market demand works in 6 to 8 month cycles. We've got to figure out how to do that faster."
In 2005, Boeing started the process by applying lean production techniques that scrapped the 777's slanted assembly positions inside the 40-35 bay of the cavernous final assembly centre in Everett, Washington. Boeing replaced those fixed positions with a moving assembly line.
The new system allowed Boeing to increase production from five per month in 2006 to seven per month a year later, but not as smoothly as the company may have hoped.
"[Getting to] 7 was very tough for us," Clarks recalls. Slackening demand in the wake of the global financial crisis allowed Boeing to stabilize the new lean, albeit manually-intensive, production system. It was clear that increasing the 777 rate beyond 84 aircraft per year would require yet another shake-up of the production system, and this time the focus would be on automation.
In addition to the Flex-track drillers, Boeing also acquired automated floor drilling machines made by Spain's MTorres. This system drills these floor panels, which are customized to each airline's specification, four to five times faster than by hand, Clark says. Boeing contracted with AVB to install automated paint sprayers for the 777 wings, finishing a job in 24min that took human painters 4.5h and with greater precision that trims about 35.8kg (79lb) off each wingset, he says.
There are limits to how much Boeing can automate a flagship product like the 777, for which every airline wants to customise the passenger experience. But company officials believe they have found the boundary between manual customisation and automated standards.
"The things that the [airline passenger] never sees or touches really does not need to be [customised]," says Elizabeth Lund, Boeing vice-president and general manager for the 777 programme. "We're still probably not looking at [automation] on the interior. Seats are a great example. We just don't have it stable enough. But structures? We're all over it."
Indeed, Boeing has drafted a vision for introducing automation technology over the next 30 years, but it likely will take far less than three decades to replace the human craftsmanship of the filling and bucking teams for the 777's fasteners.
"That can be automated. I'm convinced of it," says Clark, with a very human determination. "What we're seeing in the lab is we're getting more and more data that shows that you can do automation that simulates the human reaction in that process."