South of the Border: A visit to the world's "largest building"
June 17, 2020
Columnist's note: During our recent annual post-Christmas visit to see our daughter and her family in the Seattle area, she treated us with a visit to one of the Seattle area's major attractions. My daughter, myself and a ten-year old grandson visited Boeing's airplane factory in Everett, Washington. The factory is near Paine Field, a facility used by the military during World War II and near the city of Mukilteo about 25 miles north of Seattle proper. The Everett factory holds the title of "world's largest building by volume."
My wife and I lived near Everett in 2013-14. If we headed south on I-5 near Everett during a Boeing shift change it was an immediate traffic gridlock and the interstate turned into a giant parking lot. With 10,000+ people on each of three shifts the negative impact of shift change on traffic flow was dramatic.
Despite once living near the Everett plant and knowing many people who worked there, we never visited the famous facility. There was never an opportunity to visit the famed Seattle-area icon. Finally, it was gratifying to play tourist in an area we once called home. Here's some of what we saw and learned on our tour of Boeing's Everett factory.
A short history of Boeing's Everett Factory and the public tour
Boeing announced plans to build the factory in 1966 after receiving an order from Pan American World Airways for 25 Boeing 747's, the biggest widebody jet at the time. The purchase was worth $4.3 billion in today's dollars. The production of the plane required a new manufacturing facility. Boeing developed a 780-acre site near Paine Field in Mukilteo, 25 miles north of Seattle. The factory was completed in less than two years and modified and expanded in both 1978 and 1992 to accommodate production of additional plane models.
The project was massive, with the factory alone covering 98+ acres. Boeing built its own siding to the BNSF mainline, used initially to bring in supplies to build the plant and now part of the supply chain bringing "just in time" materials to build the planes. Each plane has more than a million parts and only the parts being used immediately are kept on hand.
Public tours began in 1968 and have grown in popularity, drawing visitors from all over the world. By 2016 five million visitors had toured the plant, I estimated about 300,000+ guests do the tour each year (at an average of $20 per head, the tours are actually a multi-million dollar business themselves). Tours begin with an orientation film at the Future of Flight Center, then guests board buses to go to the plant.
At the plant guests access the viewing galleries via sets of stairs that lead to a 2.33 mile series of tunnels beneath the plant. The tunnels allow workmen to make repairs without being on the production floors. Our guide noted the early engineers and technicians worked in the tunnels as the 90-foot high building was constructed above their heads. From either of two visitors' galleries, guests can see the production floors below. Although 11,000 employees work at the plant on any shift, it's unusual to see many employees because of the immensity of the plant and the planes.
The process for building the giant planes basically is to "build small components, then bring those components together." Large components of the planes are built separately, some in distant facilities, then brought together in the final assembly area. I couldn't find exact current production rates but found a mention that "complete assembly of each 777-300ER (currently the world's largest twin jet) requires 49 days." Another source said the assembly line moves "an inch and a half per second."
The new 777X, (a more fuel efficient model with a 7000 mile range and carrying 400 plus passengers) was flight tested this past January. The 777X's composite wings are longer than earlier 777-models requiring folding wing tips so the plane can be assembled in the Everett plant.
The Everett plant gives a new meaning to big...
The plant is a network of superlatives. The interior is as high as an eight-story building lighted with a million bulbs (Because of the mild temperatures in Seattle, the building has no heat or air conditioning. To warm the building, when necessary, more lights are turned on). Six access doors at the end of the factory are 82 feet high and vary in width from 300 to 350 feet. Twenty-six overhead cranes run on 39 miles of track to move the components in to place. Workers use 1300 bicycles/tricycles to get from one part of the plant to another. In the plant 19 restaurants serve 17,000 meals per day and the facility has its own day care center, fire department, security force, medical clinic and water treatment plant.
Looking from the visitors' gallery to the production floor, I was curious why the larger component parts, before they were painted, were turquoise-colored. The guide explained the coating protects the wings and fuselage from the salt air (Everett is on an inlet from Puget Sound) until the finished planes are painted with the colors chosen by the customer. The guide noted, "The new composite wings on the 777X are sensitive to sunlight and require another type of protection during manufacture."
The plant floor, from the distance we were viewing it, was very clean. I saw a sign, several places on the plant walls, that read, "Stop FOD." I asked the guide what that meant. He explained it meant "stop foreign objects and debris," part of the precautions required when building such sensitive and sophisticated machines.
The end of the tour
Like most tourist attractions these days, the tour ends through a gift shop on the way to the tour bus. Boeing's gift shop was enormous with everything from models of Boeing's planes to clothing adorned with the company's logo.
Or, you can shop online for some really cool stuff-like a refurbished ejection seat from an F-4 jet fighter. The seat costs $12,500 plus shipping. And it carries this warning: "This artifact is sold as is with no guarantee that parts maintain original function. Not for flight use." Just because you can buy it doesn't mean you should use it in your personal jet-but the seat would be kind of cool in your swather or pickup, don't you think?