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Boeing testing new way to build 777X

SEATTLE – At a secret facility in Anacortes, Wash., more than 40 miles north of Boeing’s widebody-jet plant in Everett, a small group of engineers next month will begin testing advanced automation methods for building the soon-to-be-launched 777X jet.

The hush-hush project reveals Boeing intends to dramatically change the way the plane’s metal hull is built, reducing manual labor on that task while ramping up the overall production rate.

“We’re going to build the fuselage differently than we do now,” said a senior Boeing engineer familiar with details of the plan. “We’re going to introduce a whole lot of automation.”

Meanwhile, in a nerve-wracking process that could either boost or bust future manufacturing in the Puget Sound region, Boeing is still weighing various plans for where to put 777X manufacturing – including Everett, alternative company facilities and non-Boeing sites.

One option being weighed: Do everything in Everett.

Another: Outsource to Japan the fabrication of the fuselage sections, now done in Everett.

Boeing spokesman Mike Tull declined to discuss what’s going on inside the Anacortes facility. Regarding location of 777X manufacturing, he cautioned that “we really are studying all of our options, and no decisions have been made yet.”

The 777X, a major update to Boeing’s successful, large widebody twinjet, features composite plastic wings and new fuel-efficient engines but retains the 777’s aluminum fuselage. It’s due to enter service by the end of the decade.

The metal fuselage panels today are made in Japan, then shipped to Everett. A person with knowledge of discussions between Boeing and Mitsubishi said the two companies have studied the possibility of the 777X fuselage sections being built in Japan.

The senior Boeing engineer said an Everett team’s plan includes converting the Everett assembly bay that’s now partly used as an extra “surge line” for the 787 Dreamliner into a 777X assembly line, side by side with the existing 777 line.

Such an outcome, including manufacturing of the composite-plastic wing, could more than compensate Everett for any jobs lost to automation.

Boeing is expected to formally launch the 777X program this fall, which will trigger a huge development program employing thousands of engineers in Everett.