Modern manufacturing often relies on the global supply chain, and building aircraft is no exception. While most of Boeing’s aircraft assembly takes place in the USA, the numerous parts that constitute a modern aircraft are sourced from suppliers worldwide.
In this article, I take a look at where and how Boeing assembles its aircraft, and also reveal Boeing’s main suppliers that produce and ship the millions of necessary aircraft parts to Boeing’s main assembly plants.
I’ll also set out which aircraft families are built at each Boeing assembly plant.
Boeing’s Aircraft Consist of Incredibly Many Parts
Whilst Boeing designs its aircraft and assembles them at its main assembly plants in the USA, the thousands of components, and the millions of individual parts, that go into a modern jet aircraft are made all over the world.
In addition to the airframe, the fuselage, the wings, and the tail, modern aircraft are made up of a multitude of electronic and electrical parts, IT systems, navigational and communication systems, mechanical systems, windows, engines, fuel tanks, internal and external lights, undercarriage, seats, etc.
Incredibly, the approximate number of individual parts that make up Boeing’s commercial aircraft are as follows:
- 737NG: 400,000
- 787: 2,300,000
- 777: 3,000,000
- 767: 3,100,000
- 747-8: 6,000,000
It doesn’t make sense for Boeing to dedicate resources to designing and manufacturing all these different parts. There are just too many disciplines involved. It’s much more efficient for Boeing to rely mostly on specialist suppliers to produce these directly for them.
Whilst Boeing does manufacture some of its own aircraft parts, it relies on a huge number of third-party suppliers to produce other parts and components for its aircraft.
Boeing’s Global Supply Chain
Boeing’s plethora of US-based and non-US suppliers and sub-contractors must meet Boeing’s performance specifications, quality standards, and delivery schedules at the agreed cost.
In order to become an approved supplier to Boeing, the supply company must pass a strict supplier evaluation based on a wide range of criteria, including capability and track record, production capacity, company ethics and integrity, geographic location, product quality, delivery performance, and customer satisfaction.
Chosen suppliers must comply with Boeing’s Quality Management System.
A key supplier to Boeing is Spirit AeroSystems based at a former Boeing facility in Wichita, Kansas which formerly produced B-29 Superfortress and B-52 Stratofortress bombers. Now Spirit AeroSystems makes fuselages, pylons, wing leading edges, thrust reversers, and engine nacelles for Boeing 737s. These components are then loaded onto trains and sent to Boeing’s Renton plant for final assembly.
Boeing doesn’t make aircraft engines, it relies on specialists such as CFM International (General Electric and Safran Aircraft Engines), Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls Royce to fabricate the engines and ship them to Boeing’s assembly plants.
Other key suppliers to Boeing include Precision Castparts Corporation (aerostructures), Triumph Group (aerostructures), Collins Aerospace (various components & parts), Honeywell (various components and parts), Kawasaki from Japan (fuselage sections), Alenia from Italy (fuselage sections), and Fuji from Japan (wing boxes).
In order to complete the manufacture of a Boeing aircraft, Boeing is supported by a huge global logistics operation to get the many parts located around the world to its US assembly plants.
To give you a better idea of how Boeing works, let’s have a look at some of the key elements involved in the manufacture of a 737 at its plant in Renton:
- Fuselage: Made by Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita and then transported by train to Renton.
- Wings: The wing skins and stringers are produced by Boeing Fabrication Skin and Spar in Auburn and Fredrickson, Washington. They are then transported to Renton for assembly. Winglets are built by GKN in the UK, but are completed at a GKN facility in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
- Tailpieces: These are produced in multiple parts – the horizontal bottom part is made by Korea Aerospace Industries. Whereas the tail elevator is made by Fuji in Japan.
- Engines: The engines are made by CFM International in Evandale, Ohio, and Villaroche, France. Once the engines are assembled, they are shipped to Renton for testing and attachment to the 737 airframe.
The Dreamlifter: The Key to Boeing 787 Supply Chain Logistics
A key player within Boeing’s huge global logistics operation is the Dreamlifter.
The Dreamlifter (Boeing 747-400 Large Cargo Freighter, LCF) is a modified 747-400 designed to quickly transport 787 parts manufactured around the world to Boeing’s Main Campus in South Carolina.
Boeing acquired four former operational 747-400s from Air China, China Airlines, and Malaysia Airlines for conversion to Dreamlifters by Evergreen Aviation Technologies Corporation based at Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan. Three Dreamlifters were completed in 2008, followed by the fourth in 2010.
The Dreamlifter’s main cargo compartment has a volume of 65,000 ft3 (1,840m3) and its maximum payload capacity is 250,000lb (113.400 tonnes). The cargo compartment is accessed from the rear via a hinged tail section.
These aircraft regularly make trips from Japan, Italy, Wichita, USA, and other places around the world to South Carolina, carrying huge 787 parts, such as wing parts, fuselage sections, wing boxes, and horizontal stabilizers.
Boeing’s Main Assembly Plants In the USA
Boeing has three major assembly plants in the USA:
- Everett, Washington
- Renton, Washington
- North Charleston, South Carolina
In April 1966, Boeing announced plans to build the 747. Construction of a new assembly plant at Everett in Washington to build these new jet aircraft began a little later in June of that year. Boeing chose Everett as the location of its new assembly plant as the site is conveniently served by Paine Field Airport.
The first Boeing 747-100 rolled out at the new Everett assembly facility 28 months after the 747 program was announced. The 747 is still in production at Everett, however, the 747 program is now winding down as only a few unfilled orders now remain.
The Everett facility was also the site for the manufacture of the 767, and currently manufactures 777s.
Everett was also the original production center for the 787-8 and 787-9. However, from 2011 Boeing started the process to transfer the assembly of the 787 to North Charleston, South Carolina (see below).
Over more than five decades of production, Boeing has produced around 3,600 aircraft at Everett.
The Everett facility is huge. Over time, the main aircraft assembly building has grown to enclose 472 million ft3 of space spread over 98.3 acres. More than 30,000 people work there, and the site has its own fire department, security team, day-care center, and fitness center.
Renton, Washington was originally a production base for the US Navy and US Air Force. After the Second World War, Renton was closed but was reopened by Boeing in 1949 to build the Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter. This facility has been in operation ever since.
Renton is now Boeing’s 737 production center, and formerly also produced the 707 (1954 – 1977), 727 (1962 – 1984), and 757 (1981 – 2004). The Renton facility is responsible for the production of about 30% of the world’s commercial aircraft fleet flying today.
All variants of the 737 since the late 1960s have been manufactured at Renton – today, Boeing continues to produce the 737 MAX family of aircraft there. Production of 737 MAX aircraft at Renton started in 2015. So far, more than 10,000 737s have been manufactured at this facility.
The Renton facility is located adjacent to Renton Municipal Airport on the southeast shore of Lake Washington and covers 1.1 million ft2 of factory space.
The factory has its own rail spur line where trains can deliver parts to the Boeing factory. This delivery method started in the 1960s during the 707 construction days and continues today with the construction of the 737. Entire 737 fuselages are delivered to the factory by rail.
In South Carolina Boeing has two large production complexes:
- Main Campus: This one is located at the joint-use Charleston Air Force Base and Charleston International Airport. This complex is the home of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner final assembly and delivery facility. The site also fabricates rear fuselage sections of the 787 and joins and integrates midbody fuselage sections. Completed aft and midbody sections are moved across the campus to the Final Assembly facility. The Main Campus also has a paint facility.
- North Complex: Located around 10 miles to the north of the Main Campus, this complex consists of three main facilities:
- Interiors Responsibility Center where various 787 interior parts are made.
- Boeing Research & Technology Center which focuses on advanced manufacturing technology and composite fuselage manufacturing.
- Propulsion where the design and assembly of the 737 MAX engine nacelle inlets are carried out.
The Main Campus was built to provide additional capacity for the production of the 787. Boeing was finding it difficult to deliver the large number of 787 orders only from Everett.
Work on construction of the Main Campus began in 2009, and limited production at the new 1.2 million ft2 (116,794m2) Final Assembly facility began in 2011. The first 787 rolled off the final assembly production line in April 2012.
In 2014, Boeing announced that the 787-10 would be produced exclusively in South Carolina. Then, in 2020 Boeing, controversially announced that production of all 787s would shift from Everett to South Carolina. The last 787 rolled out of the Everett facility in early 2021.
Boeing’s Completion Plant in China
To help fulfil huge orders and better serve customers in China, Boeing entered into a joint venture with the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, Ltd (COMAC) to complete and deliver 737 MAX aircraft produced at Renton and flown over to China.
The joint venture operates a facility located at Zhoushan in Zhejiang Province on China’s eastern coast. This facility opened in 2018. Employees at this facility install aircraft interiors and paint the liveries for 737 MAX aircraft bound for Chinese airlines.
Boeing designs, manufactures, tests, and delivers aircraft. But it does not produce all of the parts and components that comprise its aircraft. Instead, the company relies on an extensive global network of trusted suppliers to produce both small and large aircraft parts and components, anything from an IT system to a fuselage section.
These parts and components are then shipped by road, rail, or air to one of three Boeing assembly plants in the USA for Boeing to stitch them all together to make a complete and fully functioning aircraft.
You might also want to read about where Airbus builds its planes.