The world’s most successful commercial airplane has a lot in common with a popular sugary treat.
Seriously, the first time I walked into the 737 factory in Renton, Wash. I said to myself “geez, this place runs as smooth as a Krispy Kreme processing line.”
Apparently spending 12 years in the south and being a fan of the treat made me liken the two together. At Krispy Kreme stores that make the doughnuts, an automated system puts the dough into a doughnut form, fries them, and then scoops them up onto the assembly line for their final bath in frosting.
Efficiency on the doughnut line makes money for Krispy Kreme, and the same can be said for Boeing. The 737 is nicknamed the “cash cow” internally. Boeing hit quite the milestone by manufacturing its 10,000th 737 in mid-March. Boeing’s Renton factory cranks out 47 airplanes a month. The company hopes to push that number up to 52 later this year.
The 737 has come a long way since it was introduced in 1967. It was first built in the historic Seattle “Plant 2” – a site that had produced the B-17 for World War II and was the birthplace of “Rosie the Riveter,” women who assembled the planes as many of their male spouses were off fighting in the war effort.
Today’s 737 is called the “MAX” emphasizing maximum efficiency. Passengers may also notice maximum capacity, as European discount airline Ryanair plans to stuff 200 people into a specially modified 737 MAX 8, which Boeing calls the 737 MAX 200. Hope you’ve been on a Krispy Kreme-free diet before squeezing into that plane.
- A 737 takes off or lands every 1.5 seconds
- On average, more than 2,800 737s are in the air at any given time
- More than 22 billion people have flown on a 737
- The 737 has flown more than 122 billion miles, the equivalent of five million times around the Earth
Having made several trips to the Renton factory while I worked for Boeing, the thing that struck me about the main facility was how quiet it was. You’d think a place that cranks out nearly 50 planes a month would be noisy and chaotic. But that’s the secret to the 737’s success; tried and true processes that emphasize efficiency and quality.
Another thing that keeps the noise down is the fact that the largest part of the plane isn’t even made by Boeing, nor is it done in its Renton factory. Fuselages for the planes are made by Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kansas. It’s a very common site to see specially designed train cars deliver the fuselages daily to the factory. I’ve often wondered how much it has to cost to ship one of those halfway across the U.S.
In fact, many of you may not realize that hardly anything on a Boeing 737 is even made by Boeing. Supplier Spirit produces approximately 70 percent of the 737 structure for Boeing, including the fuselage, pylon, thrust reverser and engine nacelle at its Wichita facility and the wing leading edges at its Tulsa, Oklahoma facility.
The 737 MAX engines are made by CFM International, a 50/50 joint venture between GE and Safran Aircraft Engines.
While the big twin-aisle planes capture attention on the international stage, the 737 is that little engine that keeps on going for Boeing. I had the honor of being inside a newly dedicated 737 for Myanmar National Airlines that was blessed by a Buddhist monk. (Click the link, there’s a pretty cool video!)
Take a drive by Renton Municipal Airport and you’ll see 737s fresh off the assembly line for a variety of international airlines.
As noted in my previous story on the success of the Airbus A321, Boeing is constantly being pressured on price by Airbus. Reports I’ve seen show Airbus selling its popular A320 for far less than half the list price of $75 million – a price that Boeing leaders said was too low for them to go. Boeing’s strategy has always been to emphasize quality and reliability over price, so the challenge will be to maintain the quality while upping production rates and also pressuring suppliers to reduce costs.
While competitors in China and Russia still get their acts together on a true competitor to the 737, it’s clear Boeing’s 737 program will keep cranking out the planes, much like doughnuts. Although I have a feeling the list price of a 737 can buy a whole lot of doughnuts, but if you ate that many you’ll really have a hard time stuffing yourself into a modern slimline 737 seat.