Mobile radio is flying high at Boeing
Mobile radio is an enterprise-wide component in the largest aerospace company in the world.
Thanks, in part, to coordination by mobile radio, Boeing aircraft start “flying” before they are even built-suspended from cranes and moving as they are constructed. The incredible complexity of this task makes accurate communications vital, and mobile radio plays an integral part of that process.
Mobile radio at Seattle-based Boeing is considered not as a stand-alone operation but rather as part of an enterprise-wide endeavor. Shel Bentley, senior manager of frequency management services said Boeing’s use of private internal wireless allows the company to “enhance our quality assurance and competitiveness and help us maintain our competitive edge in the global market.”
Boeing truly is a global company. After its merger in 1977 with McDonnell Douglas, and its 1996 acquisition of the defense and space units of Rockwell International, Boeing became the largest aerospace company in the world. Its history mirrors the history of aviation. Boeing is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial jetliners and military aircraft, and it is the nation’s largest NASA contractor. Boeing also manufactures rotorcraft, electronic and defense systems, missiles, rocket engines, launch vehicles, and advanced information and communication systems. [See “Wireless on the Wing” on page 40.] Revenues for 1996 were $22.7 billion; for 1997, $45.8 billion; and for 1998, $56.2 billion.
The company has an extensive global reach with customers in 145 countries, employees in more than 60 countries and operations in 27 states. Worldwide, Boeing and its subsidiaries employ more than 195,000 people. Major facilities are located in the Seattle-Puget Sound area of Washington State, southern California, Wichita, KS, and St. Louis. The Seattle-based parent, The Boeing Company, is organized into four major business segments: Boeing Commercial Airplane Group; Space and Communications Group, Military Aircraft and Missile Systems Group, and the Shared Services Group.
From the ground up For the commercial division, there are three plants-in Everett and Renton, WA, and one in southern California, where the final assemblies take place. But what arrive at these plants are large sections of the aircraft already put together. The major subassemblies are produced in other plants in areas such as Wichita, KS, and Auburn and Frederickson, WA. These, in turn, are created from smaller subassemblies of various sizes and shapes from a seemingly infinite number of smaller Boeing plants and contracted global vendors.
Coordination of this process is no small task (A 747, by way of example, has 4.1 million parts.), and it requires a lot of space. Take the Everett plant, for instance. The main factory area is the largest building, by volume, in the world. It encloses 472 million cubic feet of space. The building covers 98.3 acres and houses assembly for Boeing widebody 747, 767 and 777 aircraft.
The hangar doors at the front of each major assembly bay each are 87 feet high and 300 feet wide-about the dimensions of a football field. Eighteen overhead cranes make an average of 250 lifts a day, from a height of nearly nine stories. Just to support the building of the 777, eight 40-ton cranes were added.
The rotating cranes move the body sections to assemble various parts, such as joining dorsal and ventral sections. Whole sections pirouette through the air until they come together.
There is a tremendous amount of automation involved in this process. But this does not take away the need for the human element. In fact, it necessitates a human overview. Joe Rogneby, a senior manager of frequency management services, said that at least six people might be involved in any one particular assembly: some in the control room, others on the floor beneath the planes and others up in the crane cab.
“Communications combine both data and voice,” Rogneby explained. “The data is ‘information-intensive,’ and voice is ‘communications intensive.'” The company’s interior radio use is split among 72MHz, 150MHz, 450MHz and 800MHz applications.
Number-crunching is left to the 31,361 computing devices and 16,800 workstations at the Everett plant. They are connected by about 12,000 miles of cable pairs. Yet, when a wing tip is moving out of orbit and is in danger of colliding, it’s the person with the mobile radio who uses voice communication to make the appropriate adjustment.
Radio also supports the safety of isolated workers. Although much of the manufacturing facilities themselves are vast open spaces, a particular worker, at a particular time, might be in a confined space, such as working in the area that is going to house the fuel tanks or in the wings.
“Employees working in confined or hazardous spaces need that instant radio communication to ensure safety,” Rogneby said.
The scale and intricacy of a single aircraft is complicated in itself, but at Boeing many are being assembled simultaneously. For instance, through the first nine months of 1999, Boeing recorded orders of 14,380 jetliners-more than all other manufacturers combined-and had delivered 12,911 airplanes to more than 700 operators including airlines, leasing companies, governments and private firms. The company offers 23 airplane models to serve every passenger market from 100 to nearly 600 seats-as well as a complete line of cargo freighters.
Evolving radio technology Boeing has been relying on radio communications for over half a century, going back to just after World War II. It started with VHF highband, at 150MHz, and gradually added systems, including 800MHz.
“As time goes by, the spectrum goes higher,” said Stan Jenkins, manager of regulatory compliance. Jenkins said that Boeing was one of the heaviest users of spectrum of any commercial company. He explained, however, that Boeing’s use of spectrum was not constant. It will, like manpower, grow dramatically at the inception of any new project but then will be cut back as that project nears completion.
This cyclical use can create problems, Jenkins said. Changes wrought by the Telecommunications Act, the migration of commercial service providers across the bands and the accelerated use of cellphones have made spectrum to serve manufacturing needs scarce.
“This has the tendency to narrow the number of channels that are available for us to use,” Jenkins said. “We use communications as a tool to make our products, but others use communications as their product. It pays for us to stay on top of regulatory changes of the FCC and other governmental bodies and work with them through those changes.”
Although mobile radio is used as an integral part of aircraft production, the greater, more quantitative, application is coordinating ground transportation, said Doug Yarbrough, manager of radio services. “Land transportation probably represents our largest number of users,” Yarbrough said. “For there is a very broad transportation system in place to transport all of the parts and assemblies from one factory to the next.” Yarbrough estimated there are some 14,000 to 15,000 mobile radio users enterprise-wide. “A lot of our communications are interlocked,” says Yarbrough.
Boeing’s past use of communications systems has been internal, but that situation is in the process of changing as the company moves toward outsourcing those services. Boeing has already shared its communications for fire, medical and other emergencies as backup and support for various airports and counties in the Puget Sound area. It started its first infrastructure for this public service work in 1989 with three sites running 600 radios. That has grown to 15 sites for 4,000 radios.
Yarbrough said that Boeing’s sole source for radio equipment, at least in Puget Sound, is Motorola, with its Smartzone infrastructure. “Previously, we used different vendors, so that every time you went to a different site, you had a disconnect. Now we have continuity,” Yarbrough said.