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EVERETT, Wash. -- Boeing mechanic Ken Zabel is using a handy new tool that halves the work involved in one intricate job where the wing and fuselage of a 787 Dreamliner are joined together. Boeing says the device is so accurate that it also cuts out the need for an inspection.

That elimination of a check for defects is part of a transformation of Boeing's quality system that's now being implemented throughout its production lines.

The revamp includes changing the design of parts to make them easier to build right, adjusting the sequence of work to make assembly simpler, and adding tools and automation to ease the jobs of the mechanics.

But one element of what Boeing is calling its "Quality Transformation" has unnerved the machinists' union and current quality inspectors: The company told the union last month that it will eliminate thousands of quality checks that it sees as no longer necessary.

Boeing said it will cut about 450 quality-inspector positions this year and potentially a similar number in 2020.

In the Puget Sound region, there are currently just over 3,000 Boeing quality inspectors, who typically work as a second set of eyes. For each of the tens of thousands of jobs that go into assembling an airplane, they formally sign off that it has been completed and done right. By the end of next year, Boeing's plan would bring that down to not many more than 2,000 people.

Nevertheless, the company insists the overall changes will improve quality and reduce the need for rework.

"This is a shift in thinking," said Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran, vice president of quality, before a production-line tour at the jet-assembly plant in Everett. "It will take some time, but we believe it will make our quality better. ... The initial outcomes are very reassuring that we are on the right path."

Quality inspectors check wiring connections. They check the dimensions of holes that must be precisely drilled in metal or composite parts. They check the torque applied to a nut. They check that components are made from materials that meet Boeing specifications. Before any part of an airplane is closed up, for instance by putting down floor panels or adding sidewall insulation blankets, they check that the area is free of debris.

And in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration requirements, they record every check as part of an immense regulatory system designed to document the safety of every plane that Boeing rolls out.

The model is the high-volume auto-manufacturing industry, and at Boeing the transformation is spearheaded by former auto executive Gonzalez-Beltran. He joined Boeing Commercial Airplanes just over 18 months ago and has quickly accelerated implementation of the new plan.

Born in Mexico, Gonzalez-Beltran worked there as well as in the U.S. and Brazil for Ford Motor Co., in all spending more than 32 years in the auto industry.

Working for Toyota in California, he said, he saw how streamlining, simplifying and standardizing final assembly work revolutionized efficiency and quality there, and later at other auto manufacturers.

"I see the future," he said, "because I have seen it in the auto industry."

The union and Boeing are now in formal negotiations on the effect of the changes, and the company won't disclose specifics. But Gonzalez-Beltran insisted the worry about job losses is misplaced because Boeing is increasing production rates and hiring people.

Business on 01/23/2019

Print Headline: Boeing's overhaul of quality controls hits inspector jobs

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