By Bryan Corliss
May 18, 2021 © Leeham News — The Boeing Co. has quietly recalled at least some of as many as 900 quality control inspectors who were laid off in 2019 as part of a drive to adopt car-industry manufacturing processes in aerospace manufacturing.
The move comes after the union for the inspectors – Machinists District Lodge 751 – pushed the company to prove that getting rid of inspectors could be done without risking quality issues and would actually improve production times.
“Our union’s goal is to save Boeing from making decisions that could be detrimental to (its) future and ours,” union leaders said in its monthly AeroMechanic newsletter. “A second set of eyes is a critical component of building Boeing airplanes and necessary for the long-term success of the company.”
A union spokeswoman said she was unable to say precisely how many of the inspectors were initially laid off, and how many have been brought back since the recalls started. Boeing’s media relations team did not respond to a written list of questions on the topic.
Updated: Boeing provided a written statement that said, in part, that there has been “no reduction in quality staffing related to changes in our inspection approach,” despite reports in 2019 that a new approach to quality control would lead to far fewer human inspections, and inspectors.
Update 2, May 24: Boeing provided additional information today about the reported layoffs of verification inspectors, first reported by The Seattle Times in 2019.
Boeing acknowledged that a former Boeing executive told The Times then that up to 900 inspectors could be laid off that year. It was this 2019 report that formed the basis of LNA’s introductory paragraph.
However, in response to a specific question by LNA, today Boeing said there were no cuts in quality inspectors in 2019.
There were layoffs in 2020, following the eruption of the COVID-19 global pandemic, which occurred during the extended grounding of the 737 MAX. Boeing declined to specify the number.
“We don’t provide details about employment in specific teams,” a spokesman wrote in an email to LNA. “As we’ve said throughout the past year, due to the pandemic’s impact on commercial aviation, we reduced production rates for some of our commercial programs, and our factory employment is directly related to production work statement.”
In 2019, Boeing announced a plan to use “smart tools” – using Bluetooth technology connecting to a database — that would allow work to be done so precisely that quality control inspections by humans would no longer be necessary. Instead of doing quality checks 100% of the time, inspectors would sample 1-in-100 tasks, or maybe less, the company told The Seattle Times.
This process – Boeing dubbed it “Verification Optimization” – is adapted from a process that Toyota uses on its auto assembly lines.
For Boeing, the plan would have had two business benefits: eliminating 900 people from the payroll, and also eliminating a few minutes of downtime for mechanics while they wait for an inspector to come around to inspect and sign off on their work.
In theory, if you eliminate the downtime and the inspections a few thousand times on each plane, that adds up to substantial savings in production time without any investment in people or tools.
IAM 751 appealed to the Federal Aviation Administration to look into Boeing’s plan and made rumblings about getting its supporters in Congress to intervene. Congress is now preparing an investigation into quality lapses at Boeing.
But the deciding factor, in this case, seems to have been the union’s demand to enter into what’s called effects bargaining. Since Boeing was eliminating 900 jobs, the union claimed the right to negotiate over the impact of those changes on its members.
As a result of these talks, Boeing and the union agreed that a team of union-appointed experts would begin reviewing data in areas where inspections were ending, with the ability to propose reinstating inspections when warranted, using Boeing’s own risk assessment criteria and FAA regulations as guidelines.
What the experts found was that eliminating inspections did not lead to a more efficient production process, the union said.
“In many instances, mechanics were not even made aware that inspections were removed, nor were they given any training on how this would impact their roles and responsibilities in their work assignment,” the union said. “It was a short-sighted decision without considering the long-term consequences.”
Last fall, the union said, Boeing agreed to resume having human inspectors reinstated to inspect thousands of holes that must be drilled within close tolerances (often with only a few thousands of an inch margin for error).
More inspections were reinstated in April, and Boeing recalled inspectors to do that work, the union said. The union said it will “continue to push Boeing to recall and hire additional inspectors” because “inspection remains an important and positive role in the production process.”
Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates tweeted on Tuesday that the leader of the Verification Optimization effort, Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran, left the company in December.
Update: Boeing, in its written response to our original post, said that it continues to “work across Boeing to improve safety and quality performance in our operations, while strictly adhering to all regulatory requirements.”
The company said that it uses “ongoing critical assessments to focus our inspections and also have increased resources to help prevent quality issues before they occur. For example, manufacturing and quality teams are working closely with engineers to ensure designs are easy to produce and less susceptible to errors, while identifying and eliminating the root cause of quality issues.”