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EVERETT, Wash. — Boeing mechanic Ken Zabel is using a handy new tool that halves the work involved in one intricate job where the wing and fuselage of a 787 Dreamliner are joined together. Boeing says the device is so accurate it also cuts out the need for a quality inspection.

That elimination of a check for defects is part of a sweeping transformation of Boeing’s quality system that’s now being implemented throughout its production lines.

The ambitious revamp includes changing the design of parts to make them easier to build right, adjusting the sequence of work to make assembly simpler, and adding tools and automation to ease the jobs of the mechanics.

But one element of what Boeing is calling its “Quality Transformation” has unnerved the Machinists union and current quality inspectors: The company told the union last month it will eliminate thousands of quality checks as no longer necessary.

Boeing said it will cut about 450 quality-inspector positions this year and potentially a similar number in 2020.

In the Puget Sound region, there are currently just over 3,000 Boeing Quality Inspectors, who typically work as a second set of eyes. For each of the tens of thousands of jobs that go into assembling an airplane, they formally sign off that it has been completed and done right. By the end of next year, Boeing’s plan would bring that down to not many more than 2,000 people.

Nevertheless, the company insists the overall changes will improve quality and reduce the need for rework.

“This is a shift in thinking,” said Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran, vice president of quality, before a production line tour at the Everett jet-assembly plant. “It will take some time, but we believe it will make our quality better … The initial outcomes are very reassuring that we are on the right path.”

Auto manufacturing as the model

Quality inspectors check wiring connections. They check the dimensions of holes that must be precisely drilled in metal or composite parts. They check the torque applied to a nut. They check that components are made from materials that meet Boeing specifications. Before any part of an airplane is closed up, say by putting down floor panels or adding sidewall insulation blankets, they check that the area is free of debris.

And in accordance with Federal Aviation Administration requirements, they record every check as part of an immense regulatory system designed to document the safety of every plane that Boeing rolls out.

Boeing envisions a new streamlined production system that builds every component and performs every task without defects from the get-go — “built right first time” — so there’s no need for every last detail to be inspected afterward.

The model is the high-volume auto-manufacturing industry, and at Boeing the transformation is spearheaded by former auto executive Gonzalez-Beltran. He joined Boeing Commercial Airplanes just over 18 months ago and has quickly accelerated implementation of the new plan.

Born in Mexico, Gonzalez-Beltran worked there as well as in the U.S. and Brazil for Ford Motor Co., in all spending more than 32 years in the auto industry.

Working for Toyota in California, he saw how streamlining, simplifying and standardizing final assembly work revolutionized efficiency and quality there, and later at other auto manufacturers.

“I see the future,” he said. “Because I have seen it in the auto industry.”

The Machinists union balks

For Jon Holden, District 751 president at the International Association of Machinists, the central concern is job losses.

“They’ve notified us they are trying to eliminate thousands of inspection processes,” said Holden in an interview. “That will eliminate jobs.”

The union and Boeing are now in formal negotiations on the impact of the changes, and the company won’t disclose specifics. But Gonzalez-Beltran insisted the worry about job losses is misplaced because Boeing is increasing production rates and hiring people.

“We’re actually bringing more people in,” he said. “We are not right now in any way, shape or form foreseeing any reduction. I don’t foresee any loss of jobs because of this at Boeing.” He said displaced inspectors will be moved to other work.

Still, Holden said that if Boeing cuts up to 900 positions over two years, that’s a lot of people for whom work will have to be found elsewhere.

“We do have great concern that this will lead to layoffs,” he said.

The IAM held meetings of its members last month, declaring, “It’s not OK to cut (Quality Assurance)."

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Aero Mechanic, the District 751 monthly newspaper, accused Boeing of “essentially masking defects,” by pressuring inspectors to not record defects when found but instead to simply have them fixed, then afterward produce data to the FAA showing a big decrease in defects as a justification for cutting out inspections.

And employees attending the meeting expressed concern that removing inspections risked making planes less safe, according to the union paper, which quoted one inspector calling it “a dangerous idea.”

New smart tools

On the production line tour, Boeing eagerly showed off new technology capabilities that play into its quality transformation.

Working underneath a 787 wing, mechanic Zabel slipped a thin electronic ribbon into the small gaps between the body of the aircraft and the thick metal plates that lock the fuselage to the wing. The ribbon measures the gap at the location of each of 120 bolts; based on Zabel’s measurements, Boeing fabricates precise shims to fill each one.

This used to be a more painstaking, time-consuming process, where Zabel inserted a “feeler gauge” and by trial and error determined how many thin layers of metal it took to plug each gap, then wrote down in a ledger the gap measurement at each bolt.

Now Zabel doesn’t need to write anything. The new tool connects with Boeing’s computer system via Bluetooth, automatically recording each measurement and sending the data to the shop that fabricates the shims.

Previously, to ensure each locking plate was secure at every point, a quality inspector would have checked Zabel’s work. When the tool was introduced those inspections continued until Boeing data showed the work was now producing few defects.

“When we first went to this system, (the quality inspectors) checked every airplane,” said Zabel. “But it’s now a proven process, so they only check periodically.”

The introduction of sampling instead of comprehensive inspections of every job is a key part of Gonzalez-Beltran’s changes.

“Instead of checking 100 percent, they will check once every 100 parts or every 1,000 parts,” he said.

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Night news editor

I am night news editor of the Lincoln Journal Star.

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