What airplane-building robots mean for Boeing Machinists

Boeing says automation is going to be expanded around its planes to increase efficiency and safety. Should thousands of the company's Machinists be worried that they will soon be losing their jobs to airplane-making robots?

Boeing officially acknowledged one of its worst-kept secrets earlier this month: Robots would be taking over the drilling and riveting of major fuselage pieces on the 777 in the near future.

Company CEO Jim McNerney told reporters Wednesday that the 777 was only the beginning of automation inside its factories. "We're focused on that to improve our cost, quality and the lives of our workers," McNerney said. "We will expand it over time."

McNerney hinted that automation could be introduced across its family of commercial airplanes.

Boeing analyst Scott Hamilton said the company has been slow to adopt automation, but the market won't allow that anymore.

"This is just a progressive step from what we've seen in the past, and what we also have to recognize is that Airbus has been using robotics in its plants. Bombardier is using robotics," he said. "This is just Boeing playing catch up to some degree."

McNerney said adding robots to the production line is the next logical step, considering robots are already painting the wings on the 777. The paint bots can lay down a coat of paint in 24 minutes. That job used to take four hours with a team of human workers.

The Machinists union told KIRO Radio it's concerned about the potential job losses that automation might bring, but Boeing said many union members can be retrained to work on the robots or be moved to other parts of the production line.

Hamilton said Boeing is facing a large group of retirements over the next five years and this could also soften the blow. "If it's through attrition, it's certainly less painful than losing your members through layoffs."

Washington Governor Jay Inslee was asked about his concerns over Boeing automation, and he told KIRO Radio he's hopeful that it could translate into more jobs, if it allows Boeing to build more airplanes.

"This could be, over the long term, something you could see in a positive way if it allows us to sell more airplanes and put more Machinists to work," Inslee said.

Why is Boeing doing this now?

It has more than 5,200 commercial airplanes on order. To meet that demand, it has been ratcheting up production. It is now cranking out about 42 737s a month, with plans to take it to 47 or even higher in coming years.

It is also ramping up production on the 777 and 787.

The company said the automation will help it reach those production goals without hurting workplace safety.

More than half of all workplace injuries on the 777 happen in the phase of production that is being automated.

Chris Sullivan, KIRO Radio Reporter
Chris loves the rush of covering breaking news and works hard to try to make sense of it all while telling stories about real people in extraordinary circumstances.
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