All work and no play? Ok, how about an education half day?

July 25, 2009 – 12:08 am

This past week in between keynote talks and moderating panel discussions pertaining to IT infrastructure optimization (server, storage, networks, hardware, software, services, virtualization, etc.) in Seattle and Portland, I was able to take a rare couple of hours break and go on a non work related tour.

The tour was actually two tours in one, the 1st being the future of flight facility located adjacent (ok, across the runway) to the Boeing Everett large commercial aircraft facility, which is where the 2nd tour was.

There was a saying heard on the tour, as well as something seen on several signs and bumper stickers which is, “if it does not say Boeing, I’m not going”. Disclosure time, I did fly to Seattle on a Boeing product, however I flew home from Portland on an Airbus product, and in-between those two great cities, I traveled via Amtrak.

Having been in many other in interesting factories including those of GE Aircraft Engines, GE Appliances not to mention electrical power plants (another form of a factory) both Coal, Hydro and Nuclear as well as automotive/trucks, army tanks along with chemical manufacturing or processing sites among others, the Boeing tour is right up there if not at the top of the list.

Boeing Everett Plant - photo from Gregs iPhone
Here’s an iPhone photo of from the future of flight museum/facility of the Boeing Everett factory

To say the building is huge would be an understatement! In the above photo, on the left the blue doors are each about the size of a football field in size. The building is touted as the largest building by volume in the world, and once up close you can see why the key phrase is “by volume”. The place is huge! Click here to see some more information from Boeing about the site.

Boeing does not allow cameras, cell phones, MP3 players, purses, backpacks or fanny packs, essentially anything other than your wallet or what’s in your pocket during the tour, so sorry, no photos.  However, here are some links including a great website (flight blogger) where you can see what I saw as well as learn a lot more.

Boeing is in the process of developing two new commercial aircraft, the 747-8 and the 787 “Dream liner” (learn more here at Boeings site).

In the factory, on the 747 line, which is in the older part of the building (40+ years old), the first of what is the newest or essentially 3rd generation of the 40 year old 747 airplane was seen having had its fuselage sections joined hours before. In the photo found in the following link, the sections were hours away from being joined, and the vantage point of the tour can be seen in the background adjacent to where the large U.S. flag is seen.

Click here and here to see photos from of the new “next generation” 747-8F taken the day before the tour. Click here to see some images of the 787 dream liner, including this one here that had just been removed from the paint hanger and was parked on the ramp. I also saw this plane on the ramp that had just emerged from being painted.

Some perspectives that I found interesting from the tour included:

On the 747 line, there were plenty of factory sounds, pneumatic air tools, riveters, drills, hammering and activity one would expect in a large factory where there was a mix of hand building with tools and automation. However clearly, rooted in a 40+ year old technology that has been brought up to current generation standards, systems and technologies.

In the middle of the factory, where the newer 777 were being assembled, it looked like a newer program and processes including with moving assembly lines similar to what you would expect in a high volume factory. There were lots of people moving and installing things, you could see and hear work being done, however much more automated than on the larger 747 line, not surprising seeing the size of the new 747-8F.

At the opposite end of the factory, in a section that is only about 15 years old, you could tell the difference in the structure as you walk through the below factory floor access tunnels which are large enough for large automobiles to comfortably pass each other in. The tunnels were larger; there were more bulk fiber optic cables in the overhead conveyance racks and a generally newer look and feel. However once up on the observation level above the factory floor is where you could really see the difference.

At the end of the tour, we saw the brand new 787 dream liner being put together. This is a brand new plan that has yet to fly and that has been plagued by issues, some not so different to what we see with new IT technologies. The 787 is an all composite aircraft (ok, there are some small amounts of metal in some structures) that has its components built elsewhere and then flown to Everett for integration or final assembly.

In fact, back on July 8th, 2007, (e.g. 787), Boeing did a virtual physical rollout, that is, they put the incomplete plane together, painted it, rolled it out for the world to see and of course, people believed that it was ready to fly in a month or so. Guess what, most everyone fell for the demo and thought it to be real (hmmm, sounds like some trade shows I have been to or demo rooms I have seen ;) ), only to still be on the ground dealing with development issues.

Anyway, all that aside, what I saw on the 787 line were two aircraft, that were not surrounded by people with pneumatic tools, drills, riveters or making factory sounds or noises. Instead, what I saw looked more like what I see in many IT environments, which was a piece of hardware in the middle of the room, with people all around it with laptop, desktop or other workstation computers busily doing work.

There were so many workstations, laptops and other computers on the floor in makeshift cubicles, conferences rooms that there were even network switches/directors positioned at the end of row of these cubes and clusters of workers. Thus the impact of having the engineers close to where the work was being done, the impact of all of the documentation and paper (virtual paper) work that goes with new development and reliance on information systems for communications, collaborations, design, simulation, parts tracking and so forth.

The real takeaway for me was how from one end of the factory were signs of the past generation leveraging new technologies, the middle being a hybrid, and the other end being leading edge, yet so revolutionary that issues are still being worked out.

I thought to myself of some similarities between what I saw at Boeing and many IT environments. That is, extremes, the past and the future, what works today, what will be key for tomorrow, as well as hybrid environments.

Similar to IT, customers are buying, testing and deploying for early adoption new technologies such as SAS, FCoE, SSD, dedupe, thin provision, virtualization that will be key building blocks moving forward, yet at the same time leveraging the past including disk drives, tape, RAID, FC, iSCSI  and others buzzword bingo technology, techniques and three letter acronyms (TLAs). Thus I saw Boeing leveraging the past, building to the future, surviving and sustaining itself today, a balance of the old and the new, just like many IT environments.

Souvenir hat - Photo via gregs iphone

My souvenir hat

If you are in the Seattle area and have a couple of hours to spare, I highly recommend the tour!

Ok, nuff said.

Cheers gs

Greg Schulz – Author Cloud and Virtual Data Storage Networking (CRC Press), The Green and Virtual Data Center (CRC Press) and Resilient Storage Networks (Elsevier)
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