Boeing Co. plans to build its new 737 MAX, an upgrade of the world’s most widely flown jet, alongside the current model, hoping the efficiencies created will allow the company to almost double output in the same space.
A MAX assembly line probably will be placed between two lines used for the current 737 NG by clearing room in Boeing’s narrow-body plant near Seattle, Tommy Wilson, a Machinists business representative for 737 final assembly, said Tuesday.
“We’ve got plenty of room to put stuff here,” Wilson said in an interview after an event marking a recent production boost to 35 jets a month from 31.5.
The space now holds engines, tail parts and other items that are installed on 737s moving down the adjacent line. Those can be shifted within the complex, he said.
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The single-aisle jetliner is important to Wichita, where Spirit AeroSystems builds the fuselage section of the 737. About half of its employees work on the 737 program.
Beverly Wyse, the 737 program chief, said the planemaker seeks to set a production plan for the MAX within two years after agreeing to build the plane at its current factory near Seattle during Machinists union contract negotiations last month. Designers are still working on the final configuration of the aircraft. Boeing opted for the upgrade last year rather than an all-new successor to the 737 NG amid questions about manufacturing capabilities and competitive pressure from Airbus SAS’s upgraded A320neo.
Boeing’s goal of capturing more than half a market for 23,000 narrow-body jets over the next 20 years means 737 output would have to reach 60 planes a month, Wyse said. The Chicago-based company may boost production of the NG beyond the 42 a month planned in 2014, she said. The goal is for MAX production to start in 2016, Wilson said. First delivery to customers is planned in 2017.
The increase to 35 of the current jets a month — a record — was the smoothest in Boeing’s history, Wyse said. The company has worked to avoid the meltdown in the late 1990s when it tried to double overall production and ended up having to shut factories for a month when suppliers couldn’t keep up.
Wyse said extra employees are being hired earlier this time and given more training than in the past, and Boeing is working more closely with suppliers to ease pinch points.
The MAX and the NG versions of the 737, which will co-exist for several years at least during a transition period, could be built along the same line, Wyse said. Boeing now builds 20 737s a month on one line and 15 on the other, a rate that will increase to 21 on each. The rate for the MAX hasn’t yet been determined, she said.
The union’s Wilson said the planes aren’t that different, so the new line for the MAX will be very similar to the existing ones, where aircraft are tugged along a center line from one end of the factory to another.
“We’ll take our learning and make some adjustments” to create an even more efficient line for the MAX, said Cristian Ofsthus, senior manager for the 737’s wing-body join work.
Contributing: Molly McMillin of The Eagle