0
Select Articles

A Short Stroll PUBLIC ACCESS

Boeing Makes a Big Investment to Get Engineers and Manufacturers Speaking Face-To-Face

[+] Author Notes

Associate Editor

Mechanical Engineering 127(11), 32-34 (Nov 01, 2005) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2005-NOV-2

This article highlights Boeing that is making a big investment to get engineers and manufacturers speaking face-to-face. Design engineers communicated mainly with the manufacturing side, including mechanics, builders, and manufacturing engineers, bye-mail and fax. When e-mails bounced back and forth, much was lost in translation. Mechanical engineers did not have hands-on access to parts they had designed. Change orders cropped up more than managers liked. Manufacturers had difficulty picking engineers’ brains, or asking them why they had designed a certain part just so. Boeing executives decided that the workspace should make interaction as easy as possible. Engineers did not have to lose the private cubicles where they felt most comfortable, but the cubes are now located a short stroll from the plant floor, in buildings that flank the assembly line. Boeing’s communication plan included posting updates on the company intra-net and posting fliers in prominent locations. Having managers speak to employees both in teams and one-on-one helped alleviate some of that anxiety.

You don't know if you're truly compatible with someone until you live together. At Boeing's Commercial Airplanes 737 Program in Renton, Wash.—which makes 737-model airplanes for business travelers—mechanics, manufacturers, and engineers weren't under the same roof. The engineering department was a few miles from the factory.

Design engineers communicated mainly with the manufacturing side, including mechanics, builders, and manufacturing engineers, by e-mail and fax. When e-mails bounced back and forth, much was lost in translation.

Mechanical engineers didn't have hands-on access to parts they had designed. Change orders cropped up more than managers liked. Manufacturers had difficulty picking engineers' brains, or asking them why they'd designed a certain part just so.

Boeing solved that problem by moving manufacturers and engineers into the same hangar space.

"We relied too much on e-mail , and engineers weren't coming over to look at airplanes," said Mark Garvin, the program manager who oversaw the move, which was only recently completed. "We wanted to get engineers next to people and product they support."

About one year ago, industrial and mechanical engineers packed up their desks and moved from an office tower to the two new office buildings constructed at the factory, which sits on the Boeing campus near Lake Washington.

Boeing remodeled the factory—also known as the airplane hangar—and added approximately 3,000 square feet of office space. About 1,000 engineers moved in and now sit where they can see the assembly floor. All told, some 4,000 people were shuffled, including administrative and plant-floor personnel as part of this move, which occurred with no work-flow interruptions. Airplanes were simply built amid the construction mess, Garvin said. According to Garvin, the move was part of Boeing's lean manufacturing initiative.

"Lean manufacturing means the relentless pursuit of waste," he said. "When yo u have a few people making a decision and it's done through e-mail going around, there's so much potential for rework, and for waste."

The relocation sounds like an easy enough answer to workplace woes. But the Move to the Lake project, as it's called, represents one of the largest capital expenditures in Boeing history, costing tens of millions of dollars.

It made for a huge facilities-planning effort, said Carolyn Corvi, who was at that time Boeing's vice president and general manager of the 737 and 757 programs.

She spearheaded the 18-month Move to the Lake effort; now, she is Boeing's vice president and general manager of airplane production.

Garvin oversaw the planning effort. Keeping the affected parties informed and ready for change was no easy task, he said. A team made up of the directors of engineering manufacturing, quality assurance, human resources, program management, and assorted vice presidents fleshed out how the campus should look and what purposes it should serve.

Manufacturing, mechanical, and industrial engineers as well as customer service and administrative employees now inhabit offices on two mezzanine levels, where they can see 737s march past a glass wall in various stages of assembly, Corvi said.

The recently completed move means that engineers can take a stroll out to the assembly floor to check how successfully their designs made the transition to actual parts. If mechanics request a design change, engineers can see up close exactly why the part wasn't working as designed.

The story begins some years back, when the Boeing division implemented its lean initiative.

According to Boeing, lean worked great. Program managers found that parts moved along-the factory floor and through assembly smoother than ever. The company established a just-in-time inventory program, reduced on-hand inventory, and generally saw the manufacturing floor hunmling along.

It was time for the next stage: working together under the same roof for better communication. The name Move to the Lake may sound odd, but means just what it says. People moved literally just down the road, yet the cultural change was huge, and adjustment was not always easy, Garvin said.

Why were Boeing executives willing to pony up so much money for a simple relocation? What's more, why were they willing to do so on the heels of 9/11 , when airlines throughout the nation faced financial difficulty as the traveling public stayed home?

"This is all about changing behaviors and the way people work together," Corvi said.

The main reason, of course, was that information could move back and forth unimpeded by technological snafus or misunderstandings, she said. The move also meant that manufacturers, mechanics, and engineers could collaborate better, because they could speak directly with each other.

"Now engineers can talk to the mechanic and fix that part right on the spot," Garvin said. "The mechanic can even show them how to design it so it can be installed in a way they'd like."

Architects aimed for the feel of a little city in a big building—a place where everyone lived harmoniously despite their different jobs and backgrounds, said Lori Walker of the Seattle architectural firm NEBJ, which designed the space. Sure, that's a pie in the sky idea, but it's workable to some degree.

The office move was a hassle, as is any move. But merging two cultures, engineering and manufacturing, proved to be the greater challenge, as Boeing executives knew it would be.

"In the factory, there are no windows. It's a dirty environment really—just roll up your sleeves and build," Garvin said. "Whereas engineers worked in a typical glass-enclosed office environment with cubicles."

The move was designed to get those cultures to integrate, but how best to do so?

small-town life

Boeing executives decided that the workspace should make interaction as easy as possible. Engineers didn't have to lose the private cubicles where tl1ey felt most comfortable, but the cubes are now located a short stroll from the plant floor, in buildings that flank the assembly line.

Architects designed an open, sunny space that is easily adaptable to future change. Engineers remain in cubes that open onto the assembly area. Even executives inhabit office cubicles, which means that groups can be easily merged, created, and rearranged, Garvin said.

The mobile office space makes the Boeing program lighter on its feet, better able to respond to change, he said.

"The idea was that this should never not look like a factory," architect Walker said. "But we took a factory and made a place where people could concentrate."

Architects were also challenged to strike the right balance in space and light, without appearing to favor either the manufacturing or engineering side.

Noise control was one big challenge, Walker said But the glass that separates the assembly area from office space helped turn factory sounds into white noise for the cubicle workers. Seeing the assembly floor lets engineers remember they're actually working in a factory, Garvin added.

"We wanted to create a culture where we didn't have a lot of stereotype going on," he said. "Like all the white collar people being in an office, with the leaders in Taj Mahal offices, and blue collar people on the main floor."

The engineers' office area features high ceilings and exposed beams and pipes, a look Garvin described as "industrial cool." The engineering area is not newly built; it was used previously for factory storage. The pipes and beams also remind engineers that they're part of factory production.

Twenty-foot-wide doors in the engineering area open onto the assembly line, which is 1,000 feet long.

"So engineers can hear the sounds, can sense the movement and the activity, and feel very much part of it," Garvin said. "That's creating culture of one team rather than of two groups."

Two office towers, each three stories high, flank the assembly line and engineering area.

The challenge now is using this new space to the best advantage. Thus, the Knowledge Cafe. This coffee bar really drives home the new initiative, Garvin said. The break area was expressly designed to get engineers out of their offices and mingling.

"In the past, if you saw employees standing around the water cooler, you might see that as not working," Garvin said. "But now we think of it as employees creating a relationship. If they're in a meeting later in the day and have this relationship already, well, that helps at the meeting.

"Our leaders have to understand that if employees are relaxing on a couch, that's okay," he added. "For Boeing, that's a big stretch, but it's part of this grand experiment."

The cafe features sofas, tables, and an open view of airplanes on the factory floor. At any time, engineers can actually walk above that factory floor on what's termed the Boeing boardwalk. It runs the entire assembly-floor length at mezzanine level.

The boardwalk helps further connect the engineering and manufacturing operations, Garvin said.

Adjusting to the new digs was hard for the engineers. Many were nervous about moving from an office where they felt comfortable to "being right out there with the manufacturing folks," in Garvin's words.

The manufacturing side had it no easier.

"Many folks felt they'd been ignored by the engineers, and now here they were right in their space," Garvin said.

Boeing took active steps to keep nerves, and tempers, to a minimum before and during the move. Garvin's department issued regular building-progress updates and passed out moving schedules so employees knew what to expect and when they'd be relocating.

For his part, Garvin said that he found no such thing as over-communication.

"When you involve 4,000 people and you're changing their lives, well , work is a big part of their lives," he said. "So when someone's telling them, 'You're going to be moving,' that's a huge emotional thing for them.

"Change can be exciting or terrifying to people," he said. Boeing's communication plan included posting updates on the company intra net and posting fliers in prominent locations. Having managers speak to employees both in teams and one-on-one helped alleviate some of that anxiety

The move paid off. But quantifying just how well Move to the Lake returned benefits remains a difficult puzzle. Executives compared the aircraft-assembly timeline both before and after the move, and found significant in1provement.

But judging the quality of engineers' work is another animal entirely—intangible, but not impossible.

"We hear from engineers who say they performed an engineering change that took three or four days in the past, because change orders went through e-mails and the engineer might not have made that change his complete focus," Garvin said. "But engineers tell me, 'Now I come in and walk by an airplane and a mechanic asks me to make a change and says it's holding things up.' And managers are all over so engineers can process the change faster. T hat same change takes maybe one day now."

Boeing managers also report that their teams can take on greater workloads without adding team members because employees are working more efficiently.

In fact, Garvin says he can measure the move's positive results by what's not going on. In a word: additional hiring.

Relocating to nice digs next to a lake didn't hurt morale, either. And the coffee breaks in nice surroundings are always appreciated.

Boeing moved 1,000 engineers at its commercial 737 plant.

Grahic Jump LocationBoeing moved 1,000 engineers at its commercial 737 plant.

Boeing builds commercial versions of its 737 at a Washington plant where key parts of the operation have been brought together under one roof.

Grahic Jump LocationBoeing builds commercial versions of its 737 at a Washington plant where key parts of the operation have been brought together under one roof.

ASME and Boeing Working Together

In June, ASME and Boeing agreed to work jointly in areas of mutual interest. Activities include technical information exchange at conferences, continuing education, career development, and advocacy. The agreement gives Boeing engineers access to ASME learning opportunities, training programs, technical resources, and other services. Details of the ASME-Boeing affiliation are still being discussed.

For its part, Boeing wants to keep its technical workforce abreast of new ideas and developments that could influence corporate decisions and bring a competitive advantage in the aviation and aeronautics marketplace, said Robert Spitzer, Boeing Technical Relations vice president.

Copyright © 2005 by ASME
View article in PDF format.

References

Figures

Tables

Errata

Discussions

Some tools below are only available to our subscribers or users with an online account.

Related Content

Customize your page view by dragging and repositioning the boxes below.

Related Journal Articles
Related eBook Content
Topic Collections

Sorry! You do not have access to this content. For assistance or to subscribe, please contact us:

  • TELEPHONE: 1-800-843-2763 (Toll-free in the USA)
  • EMAIL: asmedigitalcollection@asme.org
Sign In