How Boeing makes airplanes in the largest building in the world

Air travel nowadays is perhaps best described as dull: it's possible to make it all the way across the country without even knowing what kind of airplane you're on. But airplanes are still these giant, magical machines that allow people to fly, and one of the best places to get in touch with everything that goes into making such things possible is Boeing's stupendously large production plant in Everett, Washington.

The Boeing Everett Factory is where 747s, 767s, 777s and the new 787 Dreamliners are all put together. Airplanes are big, and Boeing is building a lot of them all at once, so the company needs a huge building to get it all done in. In fact, "huge" doesn't even begin to cover the size of this place.




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World's Largest Building

By volume, the Boeing Everett Factory the largest building ever constructed, covering just under a hundred solid acres of ground. To put that in perspective, it's one single building the size of all of Disneyland with 12 acres of covered parking thrown in for good measure. Around 30,000 workers pass through daily, and even with three shifts, employees have to leave in staggered waves to avoid completely swamping the local roads.

The factory is basically a small, self-contained city. It's got its own freeway (with an airplane overpass), its own railway station, fire department, security force, water treatment plant, bank, medical center, childcare center, five Tully's Coffee stands and 19 cafeterias which pump out 17,000 meals per day. Since some of the biggest airplanes in the world keep coming out of the place, it's got some seriously huge doors, too. Each one is about the size of a football field, and the largest digital mural in the world is plastered across them.

You might expect a building of this volume to have massive heating and air conditioning bills, but in fact it has neither. The Pacific Northwest is fortunately very temperate, and if it gets hot, they just open all the doors. In the winter, enough heat is provided by the tens of thousands of people all working with power tools (and the million or so overhead lighting fixtures) to keep the place comfortable. Boeing did have to install an air circulation system, though, to prevent clouds from forming up by the ceiling.




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Aircraft Assembly

A lot of what Boeing does in Everett is assembly, meaning that work crews are taking completed parts from other places and putting them together.

Smallish parts arrive on trucks and trains, but the bigger chunks (such as entire Dreamliner wings) get flown in whole from Italy and Japan aboard heavily modified 747 cargo aircraft called Dreamlifters. Each Dreamlifter has an internal cargo capacity of 65,000 cubic feet, accessed through the tail assembly, which is actually a giant door that swings open. For all you cargo aircraft buffs out there, you'll be interested to learn that the Dreamlifter can haul more cargo by volume than any other aircraft, although the mighty AN-225 still wins out on maximum payload weight. Boeing has four of these things continuously flying around the world, ferrying parts to Everett.

Once the parts arrive in Washington, they're brought into one of the massive assembly bays on the factory floor. Each aircraft type has its own part of the factory (747-8ss, 767s, 777s, and 787s), and they're even assembled differently. The 777, for example, is put together on an assembly line that is continuously moving at a rate of just under two inches per minute. This process starts well before the aircraft has its wheels installed, so the parts are carried on giant crawling gantry structures while engineers work on them. Computer stations and work tables are mounted on wheels and tied (or duct taped) to the gantries to make sure that nothing gets left behind. The line makes a big "U" shape from one side of the factory to the other, and parts come in one side and slowly (but steadily) transform into a complete 777.

As for the 787 Deamliner, so many components arrive pre-assembled that putting the plane together in Everett takes just three days. Hot off the line, you can get a Dreamliner of your very own for just $180 million, engines not included. In fact, since the engines on jet aircraft are modular, many of them exit the factory without any engines at all. This can cause a problem for the Dreamliner's fancy composite wings, which will flex upwards over time without the engines to weigh them down. Solution? Simple: just hang giant buckets full of rocks off of the engine pylons until the engines themselves get installed.

The final major step to the entire process (before delivery, anyway) is to paint each airplane in the colors of whatever airline it's destined for. Fun fact: most airlines use predominantly silver or white color schemes because those are the colors that weigh the least. Not adding a color coat can save hundreds of pounds of weight, which in turn saves a small but significant amount of fuel (and therefore money) over the lifetime of the aircraft.




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Hundreds of Dreamliners

The 787 Dreamliner is still a relatively new thing for Boeing, and most of us haven't been lucky enough to ride in one yet. But as of December 2011, over 800 Dreamliners were on order, so it's just a matter of time before you'll be able to experience all the ways in which Boeing keeps on raising the bar for air travel. And if this sounds like a sales pitch, well, all I can say is that after visiting the factory and watching these aircraft go from rivets to flight, I'm unabashedly pro-Boeing. At least, until Airbus comes out with one of these.

Happily for airplane fanatics like me, Boeing does offer public tours of the Everett factory. You're taken through tunnels under the factory floor and up to observation decks near the ceiling to give you a spectacular view of aircraft being put together. The tour staff don't generally allow pictures, even for press (probably because you're effectively looking over the shoulders of thousands of Boeing employees), but it's still totally worth it, and it'll give you a new appreciation for air travel.

Everett is only a half hour north of downtown Seattle, although keep in mind that this is completely different from the Boeing Field south of Seattle, which is where you'll find the Museum of Flight (also well worth the trip). The factory tour up in Everett is open nearly every single day, and costs under $20 a person. You won't regret it, it's awesome.

Via Boeing Future of Flight

Our thanks to Sandy Ward of Future of Flight and Marc Ackerman of Seattle for arranging the Boeing factory tour.

Correction: We originally indicated that Sandy Ward works at Boeing in our thanks. Sandy works for Future of Flight, which conducts the Boeing Tour we've written about here.

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