December 2005/January 2006
Volume 04, Issue 8
On a five grand scale
In January, Boeing will assemble the 5,000th 737, the world's most popular jetliner
BY SANDY ANGERS
Mechanic Bruce Comer didn't realize he was building a legacy when he began riveting the wings of a 737-100 in 1969. "I was just a young kid—27 years old—when I started," said Comer. "It's remarkable that the 737 is still in such demand, because they almost shut the program down in the early days."
In fact, Boeing almost canceled the program twice—once shortly after launch in 1965, when the 737 received only five orders for the year, and in 1972, when the company sold only 14 airplanes.
Despite the rocky start, Comer and the other employees in the Renton, Wash., factory will assemble the 5,000th 737 in January. No other commercial jet has been as popular. Of the more than 4,900 737s delivered, 1,250 of them are in the air at any given moment. The ubiquitous single-aisle twinjet arguably has changed the way the world flies. Its ability to operate self-sufficiently at small airports and on remote, unimproved fields has allowed air travel to reach almost all parts of the world.
The 737 "brought jet travel to people who had never seen a jet. And its low operating costs and fuel efficiency have made air travel affordable and accessible to everyone," said Mark Jenkins, vice president and general manager of the 737 Programs. He added that Boeing continues to invest in new design concepts and technologies that increase the 737's capability—and that let the airplane continue to open new routes and markets.
Today, 737s have scheduled service into 115 different countries and into more than 750 cities. It is versatile enough to profitably serve longer trans-Atlantic routes and 17-mile puddle jumps within the Congo.
Nearly 6,000 737s have been ordered to date: 3,113 models of the "Initial" (-100 and -200) and "Classic" (-300 through -500) families, and more than 2,800 of the Next-Generation 737 series, which include the -600 through -900.
DESIGNED TO SELL
Given its unprecedented success, it is hard to believe there were some doubts about the airplane when the first 737 rolled out in 1967.
"I remember watching the first 737-100 roll out of the factory and thinking, 'This is the ugliest thing I've ever seen,'" said Ed Kane, 737 Product Development director. "I was working on the Supersonic Transport (SST) program at that time. The 737 had none of the sleek, aerodynamic lines of the SST."
Standing next to Kane during the rollout was Brenda Kulfan, who never officially worked on the 737 Program, but nevertheless made her contribution to its success. An aerodynamic Technical Fellow today, Kulfan was part of a small team that was asked to reduce the airplane's higher-than-expected drag by 5 percent. "We crawled all over the airplane, measured it and identified aerodynamic changes," said Kulfan. "My part was so tiny, but obviously the 737's success demonstrates how well the original configuration was designed."
The 737's continued popularity with the airlines also can be tied to the continuous innovation of the airplane, especially with the Next-Generation series. In the early 1990s, Boeing decided to redesign the 737 from nose to tail.
Success was assured when Boeing asked Classic 737 operators to help. When development of the Next-Generation 737 series began in 1992, representatives from airlines such as Southwest Airlines, Hapag-Lloyd Flug, SAS, Maersk Air, American Airlines and Delta Air Lines were on the design teams.
Kane, who participated in the development of the Classic and Next-Generation series, said these representatives actively took part in design discussions. So when the newest 737 designs were completed, they represented a consensus of the most-valued traits in an airplane.
"The 737 airplane family was shaped by a significant cross section of commercial operators who were focused on reduced maintenance costs and increased payload and range capability," explained Kane.
But the airplane wasn't the only thing being redesigned. In the late 1990s, Boeing began to transform its production system. By implementing Lean manufacturing methods including a moving production line, the 737 Program eventually cut final assembly time by 50 percent.
Bruce Heather, who rigs and tests spoilers, flaps, ailerons and rudders, believes implementing a moving production line was essential to the 737's success.
"I didn't like the change in the beginning, but now the line runs smooth," he said. "There used to be junk all over the place, and we used to spend hours cleaning it up. There's none of that any more."
What spurred the total redesign of the production system were the manufacturing bottlenecks that shut down the factory for a month in late 1997. Ironically, it was this moment that Heather mentioned when asked for the best memory of his 26 years on the 737 production line.
"There were airplanes parked everywhere, inside and out of the factory," he said. "It took a tremendous effort by everyone to turn that situation around. But by everybody working together, we straightened out the mess and pulled it off. It took a while, and then we were right on top again."
So how long can a good thing last? Industry pundits have been speculating for months that the company is poised to replace the 737. But Randy Baseler, Marketing vice president for Commercial Airplanes, said the time isn't right.
"You would be hard-pressed to find a more efficient and profitable single-aisle airplane today," Baseler said. "We're a number of years away from having a suite of new technologies that will produce efficiencies to replace the Next-Generation 737s in airline fleets."
If you ask Comer, the 737 will continue for many years to come. "The sky's the limit. The 737 has shown itself to be a reliable workhorse, and as long as we continue to meet customers' needs, there's no reason why we can't make it to 10,000 airplanes."
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