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The Boeing 777 production line used to resemble a garage designed for angled parking.
Airplanes, in varying stages of completion, were parked in slanted positions, one next to the other in the Everett, Wash., factory.
The planes remained stationary until one was finished and rolled outside. The remaining airplanes then were moved up one position.
"We tended to have a lot of equipment and parts show up to support each position. If you didn't use them, you had to move them to the next position," said Steve Hall who has worked on the 777 since its birth in the early 1990s.
Now, the airplanes are on the move.
Earlier this year, Boeing officially put all portions of the 777 final assembly u-shaped moving line into motion. A tug pulls each airplane along the factory floor as mechanics install parts, tighten bolts or lay down wiring. Advancing at up to 1.8 inches (4.6 centimeters) per minute, the 777 line is believed to be the most extensive moving production line used to build a commercial jetliner.
Due to the size and complexity of the 777 --an empty jetliner weighs more than 16 tons (14.5 metric tons) and includes 3 million parts -- the transformation required several years of planning.
"It's real visible if you're not moving," Steve Hall, final assembly manager.
Employees spent significant time studying how parts flowed to the airplanes. Teams from different departments gathered to work out how they will interact once the plane is moving. Still other employee teams looked at how to incorporate Lean+ production principles to cut costs and save time.
"What makes the 777 line unique was taking a baseline plan and adopting it on a scale and magnitude that's never been done before," said Kim Pastega, director of 777 manufacturing. "We believe we have a competitive advantage in the way we build airplanes here today."
The time needed to assembly a 777 -- which involves installing systems, joining the wing and major fuselage sections and attaching the engines -- has been reduced from 26 to 17 days.
A big part of the improvement can be attributed to a change in culture because the movement infused a sense of urgency.
"It's real visible if you're not moving," said Hall, who now manages the final assembly process. "If you have a problem and the mechanic asks for the airplane to be stopped, it brings everyone down to the floor to see what they can do to resolve it, and get the airplane back up and moving again."
The new system also brought about a different way of handling tools and parts. Machinists no longer have to go to different areas of the factory to look for what they need to build the airplane. Instead, crews assemble the necessary equipment on carts that they roll out to designated spots along the airplane's route.
"It drives you to have everything in its place because your mechanics are moving along with the airplane. You're bringing equipment as they need it," said Hall.
The improvement comes at a good time for the popular twin-engine airplane. With 20 more orders this month, the 777 backlog has now climbed to 284 airplanes.