Boeing Transforms Aircraft Manufacturing – Statistically

Boeing is drastically reducing quality checks in the way it manufacturers the aircraft you fly in! But before you swear off flying, it’s worth understanding why they can do it without sacrificing aircraft safety.

Dominic Gates just wrote a great piece in the Seattle Times that goes into some really interesting depth on what Boeing is up to. Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran, vice president of quality at Boeing is interviewed throughout the piece and explains how the company is turning to a “built right first time” philosophy that this executive brings with him from the high-volume automobile manufacturing world. As he puts it:

“I see the future,” he said. “Because I have seen it in the auto industry.”

Boeing overhauls quality controls: more high-tech tracking but fewer inspectors

A big part of what Boeing is doing is infusing intelligence into the tools its workers use for assembling the planes. That includes new tools for automatically measuring parts of the assemblage that require custom shims for fitting parts of the plane together. It even affects the way bolts are attached:

And while mechanics today must mark each nut they tighten to ensure none is missed, that will no longer be necessary, Roberts explained, because BR&T (Boeing’s Research and Technology) has programmed the wrench so that “it tracks that you have done all the operations in a predetermined sequence.”

Boeing overhauls quality controls: more high-tech tracking but fewer inspectors

The article goes into some detail on the impact of this shift on the company’s quality assurance teams. As assembly technologies get smarter, they don’t just cut the need for assembly work. They also increase accuracy, which means less need for traditional approaches to checking every single part in the plane. As manufacturing intelligence and accuracy improve, the company can now move to statistical sampling approaches to quality control, and that means a lot less work done by humans.

As Boeing’s tools become smarter, they also become increasingly infused with software. One of the things I’ve heard from friends who work at Boeing is that this marks a big challenge for the company since it means transforming its internal culture of mechanical engineering into one that is just as much a culture of software engineering. And here rests one of the chief challenges for manufacturing companies as they navigate the shift to new automation technologies: software is eating the world and assembly lines are no exception.

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