Spar-gazing: Dustin Dixon says flying 737s fill him with pride

Boeing Fabrication’s Skin and Spar unit builds the backbone of 737 MAX 10 wings -- spars. “I love telling my kids there’s a good chance parts I touched are on that plane”

March 01, 2019 in Our Commitment

Dustin Dixon smiles broadly and puffs with pride when he thinks of his kids pointing up in the sky at a 737 and asking if he built it.

“I told them that if it’s a new 737, there’s a good chance parts I touched are on that plane,” he said. “I’ll even draw them a picture. I’ll tell them I don’t build the entire plane, but the parts I work on are pretty important.”

Dixon is a hand finisher specialist for Skin and Spar, a Boeing Fabrication facility in Auburn, Wash. His job is to remove sharp edges and imperfections from wing spars after they are milled from long pieces of aluminum. Think of wing spars as forming the backbone of a wing: two spars for each wing run nearly the length of each wing, providing the rigid infrastructure for other wing parts like skins and stringers to attach to.

Skin and Spar’s most recent achievement was to produce the first spar for a 737 MAX 10 -- the newest and largest member of the 737 MAX family.

It takes about 10 days to make a wing spar. First, the team takes long, bulky slabs of aluminum and trims away material to form the spar; excess aluminum is recycled. Hand finishers like Dixon continue the process, before a machine that looks like a car wash buffs and finishes the spar until it shines.

Through more steps, Fabrication machinists shape, strengthen and coat the finished product. Throughout the process, quality inspections assure the finished product meets Boeing’s standard.

“The process has improved a million times since I started doing this,” said Michael Johnson, a 32-year Boeing veteran. Johnson has spent most of his career machining spars in Auburn and is now the team lead in high-speed machining.

Among the changes he has seen, one stands out: Introduction of high-speed milling machines. They slashed the average time it takes to mill a spar from 30 hours to six hours. More improvements focused on quality and safety.

Skin and Spar members say the unit is not your typical Boeing factory, where space is a premium and even huge buildings are chock-a-block with parts, planes and machines. Spars and other parts from Skin and Spar are typically long and unwieldy, and cranes move the spars in a well-choreographed overhead dance. Three-wheeled bicycles navigate the wide-open spaces needed to process and store the huge parts.

“It’s a great job,” said Johnson. “I love it. Looking back, the milling process when I first got here seems like a comfortable, old Buick. The new process is like a Corvette. I’d much rather drive a Corvette.”

By Tim Healy and Eric Olson