Dreaming big in Boeing's jumbo factory

The plane maker operates the biggest factory in the world – just don't mention the parking to its 40,000 staff
  • @lucytobin

If you work at Boeing's enormous plane-making factory in Everett, near Seattle, you better like early starts.

The first shift for its 40,000 staff starts at 6am, but machinists start pulling into the car park two hours before that. Why? Because there are only half as many car parking spaces as staff. And while some drive together via a car pool, or take a bus, this is America. Better to wake before dawn and drive to Boeing's grey, windowless warehouse at 4am to secure a parking space at the world's biggest workplace.

In a country that loves superlatives, Boeing has embraced the supersized. Its factory is the world's biggest building – 472 million cubic square feet, covering 100 acres. Nearly 60 football pitches could fit inside. So could both the Taj Mahal and Buckingham Palace – but this factory, where the $200m (£120m) Dreamliner is born, isn't quite as picturesque. The building is so vast that it was generating its own weather system when it first opened –rainclouds formed near the ceiling. They had to install a ventilation system to prevent brollies being needed inside.

A huge electronic gate creaks open to reveal the factory floor – it's a plane-spotters' dream. Jets are lined up, nose to tail; the plant gives birth to 208 planes a year.

It was first built when Boeing announced, in 1966, plans to build the world's largest airliner, the 747 jumbo jet. Today one million lightbulbs are overhead; those, plus the 40,000 bodies giving off heat, mean Boeing doesn't even have to pay heating bills at the site nowadays, despite the freezing Washington winter.

I'm handed goggles and orange high-viz (made to fit the average American; a little roomy for me) before I can approach the production line. Cameras are banned – Boeing is secretive about its flagship Dreamliner, while its twin-aisle jets, the 747, 767, and 777 (aka Malaysia Airlines' lost plane MH370) are also built here. The US giant doesn't want its European rival, Airbus, learning what's behind its fuselages.

To tour the floor, it's on to a golf buggy. Workers use these – plus more than 1,000 Boeing bikes and trikes – to get around; the main corridor alone covers half a mile, and there are a further two miles of tunnels underground. Zebra crossings abound, and although there are no lollypop ladies, safety signs are everywhere – including a photo of a cute blonde toddler warning workers that screwing up could mean they don't see their families that evening.

It's quiet at the start. Then "break time is over," says Boeing's Wes Bare, an engineer and my tour guide, and there's a steady base of hammering, vacuuming and drilling.

While older workhorses such as the 747 are still in hot demand from airlines, it's working on the Dreamliner that Boeing-ites are most excited about. The plane had a nightmare launch – after emergency landings, fires, fuel leaks, broken windows, electrical fault and battery problems the US Federal Aviation Administration ordered the 787 to be grounded. But while reputations may be harder to fix than component problems, the plane seems to have flown through its early turbulence. Sixty customers from six continents have placed orders for more than 1,000 Dreamliners, valued at more than $240bn.

Working on them at Everett is mostly assembly: the 787 is made up of 2.3 million parts, which are flown in from 135 sites across the globe, often via Boeing's own adapted 747 cargo plane, the Dreamlifter, which looks like a pregnant, flying blue whale.

I pass the fuselage of one of British Airways' Dreamliners, surrounded by engineers who appear ant-sized in comparison.

Some of the planes are covered in a green protective coating, like school books at the start of term. Others – like British Airways's red, white and blue tail, and Kenya Airways' multi-coloured one – have been painted already. The tails are painted before being fixed on to the planes, then adjusted for the perfect fit. Most airlines pick silver or white colour schemes, because using these rather than adding another coat of (coloured) paint can save weight, fuel, and therefore money.

The 787's carbon composite material is what makes the plane lighter, more fuel-efficient and attractive to airlines.

About 15 per cent of the jet is made of titanium, which comes from Russia. I ask Mr Bare about material contingency plans if the US falls out with Russia. "That's something to think about," is his diplomatic response.

How about that missing Malaysian flight MH370, a Boeing 777? "Our engineers flew over immediately," says Mr Bare. "And when the [US] National Transportation Safety Board got involved, our staff moved over to them."

His view is that the missing jet is a victim of "human factor incidents". Not a surprising opinion from Boeing, given that the alternative is some kind of mechanical problem that could have been instigated at this factory.

As for the early problems that dogged the 787 Dreamliner, Mr Bare frowns when the fires are brought up, then smoothly responds: "Well, yes, we had some early issues."

He then moves on to some more big numbers, like the thirty-odd overhead cranes that run on a network of 39 miles of ceiling tracks, and pauses at the base of another Dreamliner's enormous engine.

Airlines can choose between one of Britain's Rolls- Royce Trent 1000 or a General Electric GEnx. Either way, they cost about $16m. "All engines work the same – suck, squeeze, bang, blow," says Mr Dare. "That's the fundamentals. But be careful explaining that in a bar."

While there aren't any bars on this site, there is a chain of cafés and a string of restaurants (the factory runs for 24 hours a day), including the Dreamliner Diner.

Elsewhere, Boeing's factory also has its own police force, with dogs; its own medical centre, bank, and fire service, a teeth-whitening centre (welcome, once again, to America), a massage area and a railway.

The factory floor workforce seems to be almost entirely male and predominantly white. A huge maintenance crew runs around the place too, keeping it running: every few months, a few of them have to climb the building's 35 metres height to clear rainwater off the roof: otherwise it can turn into a lake. A lake on top of this behemoth of a building would breed mosquitos.

And while Boeing likes there to be a buzz about its Everett factory, the smooth US giant doesn't want the wrong kind of buzz, be they plane crashes, engine fires or mosquitos.