Boeing vote raises questions about future of Frederickson plant

Staff writerNovember 15, 2013 

At the Boeing Frederickson Plant in 2004 in Pierce County, Lee Biggs prepares a horizontal skin panel before going to Major Assembly. The long-term future of Boeing’s sole Pierce County manufacturing facility is in question after union machinists roundly rejected a proposed Boeing 8-year labor contract.

RUSS CARMACK — Staff photographer file, 2004 Buy Photo

At Boeing’s sole Pierce County manufacturing facility, its massive skin and spar and composite manufacturing plant at Frederickson, it was business as usual Friday, two days after union Machinists roundly rejected a proposed Boeing eight-year labor contract.

The proposed agreement was not about keeping Puget Sound manufacturing workers off a picket line this week — two years remain on the existing labor agreement that covers workers at Frederickson and other Boeing Puget Sound plants — but about the long-term future for the region’s aircraft industry.

Had union members approved the deal Wednesday, Boeing promised to build the next-generation 777X in Everett and its composite wings in the Puget Sound area. Now, without a labor deal, Boeing has opened up bidding from other states and countries for the 777X work.

None of the some 1,800 Frederickson workers will immediately lose their jobs because 67 percent of union members voting said no to the proposal. And a positive vote on the labor contract likely would not have brought big boosts to the employment there.

But as Boeing’s aircraft design evolves, the jobs that Frederickson workers perform, especially in the skin and spar facility, could be threatened by newer technology.

That skin and spar facility is all about crafting parts from metal — mostly aluminum — that are used in the present generations of Boeing aircraft such as the 737, 747, 767 and 777. But newer aircraft are increasingly made of composite materials. The 787 Dreamliner’s structure is mostly composite. The new 777X’s wings will be built of composites, not metal.

The Frederickson plant’s composites manufacturing facility, housed in a separate building from the skin and spar manufacturing operation, already has expertise in those lightweight materials as the region’s largest composite aircraft parts producer.

The Frederickson plant now builds the composite vertical tail for the 787-8 and the composite empennage for the existing 777.

Much work remains for now for the Frederickson plant. Boeing’s order backlog now totals some 4,800 commercial aircraft — including nearly 3,500 737s, which will be built in the company’s Renton plant. The 737, whose original design was crafted in the 1960s, remains a mostly-metal aircraft even in the new-generation 737 Max version, which will enter commercial service in 2017. The 767, designed in the late 1970s and early ’80s, is much nearer the end of its commercial life with 49 commercial orders remaining. But the 767 will live on as the basis for the Air Force’s new aerial tanker.

That mostly metal plane is expected to enjoy perhaps 10 more years of production as the basis for both U.S. and foreign air force tankers and surveillance planes.

The existing 777 counts 326 existing orders with more likely to be signed in the next few years. That plane likely will remain in production for six or more years before Boeing transitions to the 777X.

More problematic is the venerable 747. Only 55 orders remain for the newest version of the original jumbo jet, the 747-8. Some analysts have speculated that without a sizable infusion of new orders, 747 production could end in three or more years.

If that happens, and Boeing moves 777X component production elsewhere, the Frederickson plant would lose two of the five aircraft lines for which it makes parts.

That’s still years in the future, but it is nonetheless a real possibility.

“Metal eventually will go the same way as did wood and cloth as an aircraft construction material,” said one Boeing Frederickson worker who was voting on the Boeing proposal Wednesday. “We have to enhance our composite manufacturing skills if we want to continue making parts for planes.”

The composite wing for the 787 is now made in Japan. But Boeing has said it likely will make the 777X’s composite wing near the 777X final assembly site.

Before the contract rejection, it appeared that Boeing might build the 777X wing in Everett near or at the Paine Field assembly line where the upgraded aircraft would be constructed.

Boeing isn’t saying whether it will build the composite horizontal and vertical tails for the 777X at Frederickson. The plant has the advantage of long experience creating the composite tails for the existing 777 and the 787-8. The Boeing composite component manufacturing plant also has the advantage of being sited adjacent to a plant owned by Japan’s Toray, but that experience wasn’t enough to win the contract to build the vertical tails for the 787-9, the stretched version of the base 787-8. That job is performed by Boeing in Salt Lake City.

Besides its experienced workforce and its existing infrastructure, the Frederickson site has several attributes that could make it a candidate for expansion if Boeing decides after all to build the 777X in Everett.

State economic development officials, Gov. Jay Inslee and Pierce County development promoters say that in spite of the union’s rejection of Boeing’s proposal, they plan to enter the race to win the 777X project.

Boeing has ample land for expansion at Frederickson if it needs to expand composites production, and the access problems that hampered the site early in its existence have largely been solved with the expansion of Canyon Road, said Bruce Kendall, chief executive of the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.

“The Washington Aerospace Partnership (of which the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County is a founding member) will continue to work together to ensure that we put our best foot forward,” said Kendall.

“A great opportunity was missed this week, and it stings,” he said, “but the game is far from over.”

John Gillie: 253-597-8663
john.gillie@thenewstribune.com

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