Boeing Plant Buzzing Despite F-22 Slowdown
By Grace V. Jean
SEATTLE — In a facility that once built the wing for the B-2 stealth bomber, teams assemble the F-22 Raptor’s wings and aft fuselage with
tools that are constantly drilling, buzzing and sawing. Workers here know that the assembly line may be shutting down in three years.
“The things we’re doing now, we’re still proceeding with, independent of dollars and future airplanes,” says Dave Pouliot, Boeing production operations director for F-22.
The plant was originally designed to build three F-22s per month for a
total of 381 aircraft — the Air Force’s target number in the late
1990s. Boeing had planned to construct the wings and fuselage on a
moving assembly line. But as the numbers dropped down to the current
buy of 183 aircraft, the factory is instead producing two aircraft a
month by “pulsing” the parts along on casters to different
About 150 workers build the planes during one of three shifts, with the
bulk of them on the first shift. During peak production of the plane
last year, it took workers five days to complete each wing and a total
of 10 days for the fuselage. Those cycles are slowing down, says
Pouliot, because the number of aircraft being built per year has
decreased to 20 from 24. The flow time for the fuselage is now about
12.5 days and about 6.5 days for the wings.
“That’s a natural deceleration progression, because really what we want
to do is match our production rate to our customer demand,” says
The production team is in the thick of building the lot seven aircraft
and plans to begin production on lot eight aircraft at the beginning of
2009, he says. Lot nine aircraft production will carry on through 2011.
The F-22 Raptors will replace the Air Force’s aging fleet of F-15
Strike Eagles. The Defense Department has funded a total of 183
fighters. But because the program lacks funding in the fiscal 2009
budget, there is growing speculation that the conclusion of the F-22
production is fast approaching.
Despite the possible shutdown of the line, Boeing is pushing ahead with
plans to improve ergonomics and safety at the plant.
“We are using our site investment dollars to bring those into the
factory today,” says Pouliot.
F-22 technicians are treated like surgeons in an operating room.
“You don’t want a surgeon in the operating room to stop and say, ‘you
know, I’ve got to go get a scalpel. I’ll be back in 10 minutes,’ and
the patient’s on the table,” says Pouliot. “These people are engaged in
highly technical and complex work.”
New equipment and lighter-weight tools are among some of the
improvements that continue throughout the facility. In several cases,
the production teams have come up with ideas to increase efficiency.
One example is the injection of sealant into the wings during final
assembly — a physically demanding job for operators who must hold a
heavy sealant gun throughout the process. Team members devised a
wheeled platform that would support the sealant gun and hold it in
place as they injected the wing.