One plane, six million parts

Boeing 747-8

  • TEXT MARC BIELEFELD
  • PHOTOS JENS GÖRLICH

The Boeing 747-8 is being built at the vast Boeing facility near Seattle, Washington. It takes four months to transform thousands of components into the world’s longest aircraft. We take a peek behind the scenes of the most important stages of production

Boeing 747-8

All the cables and wires are sorted, checked by hand and bundled into harnesses for installation into the 747-8

© Jens Görlich

The Boeing Site – a world in itself

The site occupied by the largest US aircraft manufacturer at Paine Field near Everett is several things all rolled into one: construction plant, data center, and a giant expanse of tarmac with a 2.7-kilometer runway and parking positions for dozens of planes. But the heart of Boeing is the Everett Factory – a hangar-like structure vast enough to provide workplaces for 32,000 people. It’s the largest man-made building of its kind on the planet, enclosing a total space of 13.4 million cubic meters. Two of the hangar doors are each 107 meters wide – nearly the length of an NFL football field. You could fit 911 basketball courts – or California’s Disneyland in its entirety – on the factory’s 40 hectares of floor space. It is here, alongside its smaller cousins B767 and B777, that the 747-8 is being built. The 747-8 the latest, most efficient and most graceful version of the jumbo jet (itself one of the most successful commercial aircraft designs in aviation history) and it is part of the Lufthansa fleet.

Rail Receival Area – the great unpacking

At this stage, the Boeing 747-8 is still like an enormous jigsaw puzzle. But each of its thousands of separate pieces already has its own number and is destined to form part of a specific plane. Some of the largest sections – wing, body and tail components – come in from other parts of the United States but some of them travel all the way from China and Japan. The aluminum parts are shipped by cargo plane, railroad and truck to Boeing in Seattle, where Supply Chain Analyst John Diddams and his team unpack them and make sure they are sent on to the right production shops at the right time. A massive overhead winch lifts complete freight doors, half a jumbo nose and other heavy, unwieldy components, which can weigh anything up to 18 tons, effortlessly out of the safe packaging of their transit containers and transfers them to tractor trailers that are specially designed to carry specific sections of the 747-8.

 

Boeing 747-8

Cranes lift the fuselage onto a tractor trailer. This requires millimeter precision and expert handling

© Jens Görlich

Wire & Cable Shop – connecting it all up

Wire and cable shop 40.02 is simply enormous. This is where some 100 experienced workers sort, grade, bend into shape and connect up the 250-plus kilometers of cables forming part of each and every Boeing 747-8 and bundle them into cable harnesses ready for installation. Each cable or wire has its special function in the aircraft and must be connected securely to the correct instrument, button or control panel. It’s a manual job performed by technicians working from detailed drawings and component lists at benches 40 meters long. Every cable has a code of up to 10 digits indicating its position, connections and the cable harness to which it belongs. Some of these harnesses are as thick as a man’s fist. When they are complete, they are wound onto large yellow spools and sent for testing. After passing the tests, they are released for installation in the aircraft’s wings, fuselage and tail assembly to form the many thousand connections for the sophisticated electrical and data transmission systems that keep the aircraft flying safely over long distances.

Interior Responsibility Center – pretty practical paneling

The new jumbo jet has its own cabin design, consisting of wall panels, overhead bins for hand baggage, and ceiling and partition panels. The panels must be light in weight but tough enough to withstand extreme impact forces. Panels of a carbon sandwich membrane resembling honeycombs on the inside move on a conveyor belt through special ovens, where they are molded into shape at 40°C. This process turns out as many as 15 overhead bins a day for the 747-8. Before a complete bin continues its “baking” process, adhesive is applied to the side panels and walls – all with millimeter precision and by hand. A single finished bin is extremely light but can hold 54 kilos of baggage and withstand forces of up to 9g – more than 450 kilos. In the next department, 56 separate panels are fitted together to form the ceiling cladding.

Boeing 747-8

Precision craftsmanship: A Boeing technician uses a hot-air gun to bond the layers of a cabin panel. The shells are then fired in a special furnace

© Jens Görlich
Boeing 747-8

Inside a wing: Every single screw is checked and tightened up by hand

© Jens Görlich
Boeing 747-8

Mini power stations: The 747-8’s GEnx engines with their signature chevron nacelles

© Jens Görlich

Structural Wing Assembly – the giant sprouts wings

The first step in wing manufacture is to punch several thousand holes into the aluminum alloy wing sections. Although this is a totally computerized process, it is constantly monitored by a technician’s eagle eye. The holes are for the rivets that hold the wings together. Once assembled, the enormous wings are coated with a green protective lacquer, each section having its own special shade of green. The wings are now more or less their final shape and size – but are still only a framework without winglets, electrics, hydraulics, engines, lights and all the many other details that go into a modern aircraft wing. Flipped up into a vertical position, the giant wings rest between three-level work platforms, on which mechanics are hard at work grinding the rivet heads smooth, inspecting the kerosene tanks, and inserting and tightening up bolts and screws. When one work platform has finished with a wing, an overhead winch lifts it bodily and carries it to the next one, until all the complex inner components and systems have been installed and the wing is ready for assembly.

Final Body Join – a jumbo takes shape

Once the large structural sections – tail assembly, main body, nose and wings – of the 747-8 are complete, they are transported to the center of the production hangar. All the sections are still separate but pushed to within just a few centimeters of each other – ready to finally come together as a finished plane in a step-by-step process. The Wing Stub department attaches the wings to the fuselage with thirty massive bolts, each several centimeters in diameter. These are the main connecting elements, but they are reinforced by hundreds of smaller screws and bolts. Cary Fiske, one of the people in charge here, has just disappeared inside the plane’s fuselage. The main fuel tank, which he and his team sealed in a large furnace called the “hot box” prior to installation, is now being installed in the middle section of the fuselage, where the main landing gear will later be located. Now it’s time for pressure tests to be performed, corrosion-proof coatings to be applied, and cables, electrical and hydraulic lines to be laid. Nose and tail are joined and thousands of bolts, each with its own number, are tightened. The 747-8 gradually takes shape inside the hangar, a gleaming silvery-green bird that very soon will be ready to fly.

Boeing 747-8

Just the right thickness: A Boeing technician applies a coat of protective paint inside the wing

© Jens Görlich

Paint Shop – the final touches

At Decorative Paint Operations, each 747-8 is decked out in the colors and livery of its destined airline. A Lufthansa jumbo is receiving its final color scheme – the traditional white with the characteristic blue-and-yellow tail fin. Painting the jet is a five-day job with skilled specialists working 14 per shift round the clock. They begin by stripping the protective coating from the plane’s outer surface to the original bare aluminum. The windows and antennas are then masked by hand, ready for the onslaught of the spray guns. The paint is applied in extremely thin coats, and the finished job, including primer and final coat, is no thicker than a human hair. Nevertheless, a plane this size requires more than 1,200 liters of paint in all, tipping the scales at around 300 kilograms. The final touches are put on by hand using small hair-bristle brushes and special sponges. The tiniest markings are painted with the sort of precision used by dedicated model makers. When the painters have finished with the grande dame of the airways, you can see your reflection in her paintwork. Now she’s ready to to fly!