Sunday, February 16, 2014

Inside the Boeing Factory

Boeing and Airbus aircrafts have ruled the skies and air travel is almost confined to using one of their planes.  They are leaders and rivals in aviation industry.  Who is the market leader?  The answer is difficult to find due to multiple factors that are used to claim market leadership.  Airbus claimed 53% market share in 2013. Boeing delivered 648 airplanes as against 626 by Airbus that year.  Boeing's earnings were 51 billion US Dollars as against 38 billion US Dollars of Airbus.  Due to the peculiar nature of the industry, it is difficult to pin point as to who is the leader. There are many factors for consideration; order book, revenues, aircrafts delivered etc.  To a dispassionate observer it appears that both are equal market players and fierce competitors.  Other aircraft producers are only fringe players. However, one distinct fact emerges from the comparison; Boeing is producing higher number of bigger planes whereas Airbus is producing more number of smaller planes.  Aviation industry needs both types, depending on the traffic in different routes and handling capacities of large, medium and small airports.

Boeing is the world's largest aerospace company since it also manufactures and sells satellite weapons, electronic and defense systems, launch systems and advanced technology solutions related to Aerospace industry.  The aggregate earnings of all these products accounts for the higher revenues. The company is one of the largest employers in the world; over 170,000 people work for the company.  55,000 employees work at a single location, Everett near Seattle in Washington State, USA. Incidentally, the very first Boeing-747 manufactured was named as Everett.  A visit to the Boeing factory in Everett is a wonderful experience to anyone interested in planes. Children simply love it.  And so do adults with a child's enthusiasm.

Boeing company provides an opportunity to visit its Everett facility and the tour is called "Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour". Booking can be made on-line or over phone and there is a guided tour every hour, each tour lasting about 90 minutes.  Additional tours are provided to accommodate group visitors and peak time requirements.  Admission charges are about 20 US dollars with discount for advance booking and youth below 15 years. The tour starts with a ten minute introductory film about the company in the auditorium adjacent to the booking office.  Photography inside the factory is strictly prohibited.  Arrangements are available for wheel-chair visitors as well.

The Everett factory situated 25 miles north of Seattle city is spread over 98.3 acres which is 12 acres bigger than Disneyland in California.  Production area covers 472 million cubic feet.  Its 55,000 employees work in three shifts on 365 days a year.  The length of one production floor, through which the visitors are taken through, is nearly one kilometer and monthly production level is 10 planes in one floor unit.  The visitors are shown assembly of three models of aircraft from an elevated platform - Jumbo 747-8, 777 and 787 Dreamliner.  A Boeing 747-8 has 6 million parts in it and yet the final assembly in this product line is done in 3 days!  All activities are standardized and the name of the airline buying each of the planes is already painted on them during the assembly itself.  Each production floor has three aircrafts being assembled at any given time.  The planes being assembled are on slow moving pedestals and at the end of the third day the aircraft moves out and flies to the buyer's place. Each of these aircraft costs approximately 260 million USD to 350 million USD, depending on the model.

Boeing 747-8 is a wide bodied, twin aisled fourth generation jumbo jet and is a competitor to Airbus's A380.  The four engined aircraft can carry up to 460 passengers depending on seat configuration.  The aircraft with a take-off weight of 440,000 kilograms is used by airlines on long-haul busy routes like trans-atlantic and trans-pacific flights.  It can fly at a speed of 500 miles or 800 kilometers an hour and is more fuel efficient and less noisy than its earlier versions.  One such aircraft flies between Bangalore and Frankfurt.

Boeing 777 is a wide body twin engine jet that can fly non-stop up to 17,000 kilometers.  It can carry 300 to 440 passengers at a speed of 600 miles per hour (about 950 kilometers per hour).  It is Boeing's first fully computer designed aircraft.  It is also its first fly-by-wire aircraft with computer-mediated controls.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner is the latest aircraft from the Boeing stables.  Its body is made of hardened plastic and fibre glass as against the traditional Aluminum bodies for other aircrafts.  The material made of plastic and fibre glass is stronger than steel but lighter than Aluminum.  Its shining surface gives a pleasant look and the travel in them is more comfortable.  It is suitable for landing and take-off from mid-sized airports as well.  The twin-engine long haul aircraft can carry 200 to 350 passengers.  Air India was one of the earliest users of the aircraft but the experience was not that pleasant due to technical and other reasons.  Air India is now selling these aircrafts to repay long term loans.

The 90 minute tour through the Boeing factory last month was a thrilling experience and gave a true insight into aircrafts and aviation industry.  At the end of the tour, the guide asked us in the group of about 50, as to who has traveled in each of these aircrafts.  I was the only one who had traveled in all the three of them. Others too might have done so.  Only they might have not noticed them!