Boeing’s 777X jet completes its first test flight

777X takeoff
Boeing’s 777X jet takes off for its first flight from Paine Field in Everett. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Boeing’s next-generation 777X wide-body jet completed its first flight today, providing a boost to the embattled company amid the 737 MAX crisis — and drawing rave reviews from its pilots.

The plane took off from Paine Field in Everett, Wash., next to Boeing’s wide-body jet assembly plant, headed eastward over Washington state and featured several rounds of maneuvers, including a photo op near Mount Rainier.

“It was awesome,” 777X chief test pilot Van Chaney told reporters at Seattle’s Boeing Field, where the nearly four-hour flight test ended at 2 p.m. PT.

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Humans and robots kick off 777X jet production

Boeing 777X banner
Boeing workers sign a banner celebrating the start of production for the 777X jet. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

EVERETT, Wash. — With the rat-a-tat-tat of a robotic riveter, Boeing celebrated the official kickoff for production of its next-generation 777X wide-body jet.

Today’s ceremony brought more than 200 Boeing workers (plus a busload of journalists) to the building where the support structures for the 777X’s carbon composite wings are being assembled.

The climax of the celebration came when a laser-guided robotic arm drilled a hole into the carbon fiber layer for a 105-foot-long wing spar and its stiffener, and then loudly installed the first fastener.

Workers greeted the noise with applause.

“We’re turning the chapter,” Jason Clark, vice president of 777 and 777X operations, told the crowd. “This is a change in the history of how we manufacture, how we assemble and how we fly our aircraft.”

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Robots and humans unite on Boeing’s 777X

Robot on 777 line
Robot 2, built by Electroimpact, places fasteners into precisely drilled holes in the fuselage for a 777 jet at Boeing’s Everett plant. In this case, a human worker inside the fuselage hooks up the other part of the fastener. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

EVERETT, Wash. – Some manufacturing workers may worry that robots will be stealing their jobs, but not Boeing’s Jordan Northrup.

He’s glad to work with Robot 1 and Robot 2, the industrial-strength machines that drill holes and hook up fasteners in the metal panels of a Boeing 777 jet’s fuselage.

“Instead of blowing my shoulder out, shooting 300 fasteners a day or countersinking 300 holes a day, I get to learn a new skill. … I get to run a robot,” said Northrup, structures team lead for midbody at the Fuselage Automated Upright Build facility in Boeing’s Everett plant.

The facility, known as the FAUB, is just one of the places where Boeing is upping the ante for automation in the airplane industry. Boeing showed off the FAUB and other robotic hot spots at its Everett plant as a preview for this month’s Paris Air Show.

As Boeing gears up to start building 777X airplanes, the company is building on its experience with robot-assisted assembly for the widebody 787 Dreamliner and single-aisle 737 MAX.

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How robots and humans get along at Boeing

Boeing robots
The robots that are part of Boeing’s Fuselage Automated Upright Build system work inside and outside a 777 jet fuselage during assembly. (Boeing via YouTube)

Automation isn’t just a job for the robots: It takes flesh-and-blood workers to make robotic manufacturing work, as shown in a new video about the machines that set fasteners on Boeing’s 777 jets.

Boeing’s Fuselage Automated Upright Build, or FAUB, works with operators and mechanics at the company’s plant in Everett, Wash., to do some of the heavy lifting for 777 assembly. So far, more than 40 jets have gotten the FAUB treatment.

The job begins when teams of mechanics move the panels that form the forward and aft sections of the fuselage into place. Pairs of robots, inside and out, move in unison to “drill and fill” the thousands of fasteners required to secure the panels.

In Boeing’s feature about FAUB, mechanic Mike Jennings says all that drilling and filling used to be done by hand – a task that was “really tough and stressful” on his back, neck, shoulders and arms.

Now Jennings is a robot operator – monitoring views from a camera mounted on the robot arm, maintaining the system and making tweaks to optimize performance.

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Boeing trims 777 jet production, raises dividend

Boeing 777
A Boeing 777 jet is assembled at the company’s plant in Everett. (Boeing Photo)

The Boeing Co.’s decision to trim back production of its wide-body 777 jet is likely to bring bad news for employment at its plant in Everett, Wash., while a boost in the company’s quarterly dividend should come as good news for investors.

The bad-news, good-news situation was laid out on Dec. 12, sparking ups and downs in Boeing’s share price. By the end of today’s trading, the price was slightly down.

The planned cutback in 777 production from the current 8.3 jets per month to five per month next August points to a dramatic softening in the market for twin-aisle, wide-body jets. Production of Boeing’s 747 jumbo jets has been reduced as well. “The twin-aisle market is glutted,” Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia told Reuters.

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Boeing opens billion-dollar 777X wing factory

Image: 777X Wing Center opening
VIPs and workers gather for today’s grand opening of the 777X Composite Wing Center in Everett, Wash. The factory’s 120-foot-long autoclave is at right. (Credit: Boeing)

Boeing is showing off the partially automated 777X Composite Wing Center it built at its campus in Everett, Wash. – the result of $1 billion in investment and 14 months of construction work.

Today’s grand opening brought together community leaders, executives and workers at the 1.3 million-square-foot factory, which is big enough to house 25 football fields. It’ll be a while before 777X production begins, however.

Boeing says it has received 320 orders and commitments so far for the wide-body plane, which can accommodate up to 425 passengers in its 777-9 configuration. The first delivery is targeted for 2020.

The 777X’s 114-foot-long wings will be built up from carbon composite material, layer by layer, with the aid of automated fiber placement machines from Electroimpact, based nearby in Mukilteo. The composite pieces will be trimmed and cooked to completion in a 120-foot-long oven known as an autoclave.

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