Boeing's Russian Edge
By SABRINA TAVERNISE
MOSCOW, May 25—
Ever notice that overhead compartments in Boeing planes now fit big rolling carry-on suitcases? Russian designers made it happen.
Wonder why planes don't have beds on long flights? Russian engineers are working on it.
Foreigners may associate Russian engineering with the Mir space station's last fitful years or the meltdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. That ratty reputation, however, has more to do with this country's aging equipment and Soviet-era infrastructure than with the quality of design.
Scary stories aside, Russians are some of the most agile and skillful engineers and designers in the world. Ask anyone who works with them.
''The Russians are creative -- these are the guys who designed spaceships,'' said Esther Dyson, venture capitalist and Internet exponent. ''If you have a tough problem that requires compression or complex scientific operating systems, if you want awesome graphics or an airplane design, Russians are really good.''
In recent years, however, designers from Russia's aerospace industry have not been very busy. A decade-long slump in domestic demand after the fall of the Soviet Union shows no sign of ending.
Though few engineers lost their jobs -- the industry has yet to go through the deep restructuring it needs to be more efficient and competitive -- the work has dwindled.
The Boeing Company has taken advantage of the collapse. Its Moscow design center, which it opened with 10 Russian scientists in 1992, now employs about 650 engineers, scientists and computer specialists from Russia's biggest aircraft design bureaus.
Boeing contracts with the Russian companies, including Ilyushin and Tupolev, which are then able to pay salaries as much as 10 times the average Russian designer's pay of $200 to $500 a month.
Western manufacturers are drawn to Russia by its highly qualified work force, executives said. Russian engineers, who generally are used to improve designs for existing airplanes rather than develop new products, are also relatively inexpensive. Russia is the only country outside the United States where Boeing operates such a center, though the company said last week that it would open a small research center in Madrid to develop environmental and air traffic management technologies.
Boeing also relies on subcontractors, many of which do some of their own design work, from all over the world.
''Quality caught our eye'' in Russia, said Sergei Kravchenko, Boeing country executive for Russia and countries of the former Soviet Union. ''There's no other place in the world where there are so many underemployed Ph.D.'s applying for jobs as car mechanics. But we probably wouldn't have grown so fast if it wasn't such a strong business case.''
Hank Queen, vice president for engineering at Boeing's commercial airplanes division, said Russian engineers also offered fresh perspectives on established ways of doing things. ''They know things that we don't,'' he said.
While Russian designers make up less than 1 percent of the thousands of engineers employed by Boeing, the Moscow center will double its stable of designers within a year. And Boeing, which runs neck and neck with its European rival, Airbus Industrie, in new orders for commercial airliners, may open more small research and design centers outside the United States, Mr. Queen said.
That does not sit well with Boeing designers based in the United States. Their union in Seattle said much of the Moscow center's design work had to be redone because of differences in language and methodologies.
Rich Plunkett, a contract administrator at the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, the union that represents many Boeing engineers, estimates that a Moscow engineer costs Boeing $46 an hour, far less than an American. But that low wage does not necessarily save the company money because of the extra work needed, he said.
''This hasn't been a red flag for us yet, but it's a yellow flag,'' said Bill Dugovich, communications director at the engineers' union. ''About three months ago the company came to us and outlined six jobs in Seattle that were going to be transferred to Moscow. We want to watch this closely.''
Here in Moscow, though, the setup is appealing to Russian engineers, who after the fall of the Soviet Union found themselves in an economy that no longer valued their skills and had to search for ways to supplement their income. Their companies, meanwhile, were scrambling to adjust to the new market conditions.
Aleksandr Amelin, 41, a design manager who worked at the Ilyushin Design Bureau for 18 years and came to Boeing in 1997 when the company began hiring Russian designers, said his company had experimented with a noodle-packaging machine and an industrial dryer for shoe production.
Before he was hired by Boeing, Mr. Amelin, who was trained at the prestigious Moscow Aviation Institute, worked part time designing billboards and slot machines -- and even found work as a salesman in a women's clothing store in Moscow, where he lasted two days.
''The moment of truth for me came in 1997,'' said Mr. Amelin, recalling his days at Ilyushin, which designed many of the commercial aircraft that are still flown by Ae
ot and other airlines in the old Soviet bloc. ''Before, the pay was small but at least the work was interesting. Later, the work had become less interesting. We weren't working on major projects anymore. There were no new plane designs.''
In Boeing's design center, on four floors of a glass high-rise near the Kremlin, designers work in two shifts, the later one overlapping with the workdays of Boeing designers in Seattle; Wichita, Kan.; and Long Beach, Calif.
While the design tasks are similar to those at the Russian companies, the approach is different, many engineers here said. Newcomers have much to get used to, beginning with rules that forbid smoking and require English, and ending with new computers and new ways to transfer designs to the factory floor.
Nadezhda Frolenkova, 44, an Ilyushin engineer for 26 years who joined Boeing in December, said she liked the smoking ban -- ''I used to have to put on a gas mask to go to the bathroom,'' she said -- but was frightened by computers. As a tool designer at Ilyushin she never used them, not even for e-mail. She did her design work exclusively by hand.
''At first I was afraid of it, but now we are friends,'' said Ms. Frolenkova, gesturing to the computer on her desk, where lists of English words like ''trim,'' ''merge'' and ''pattern'' hang over it.
Despite such initial hitches, Russian engineers are proving their worth, Boeing said. Russian designers, for example, created a new overhead arch beam that holds up airplane storage bins. The part used to take more than 18 hours of hand labor to assemble, but the redesigned version, which is lighter, is now made entirely by machine in less than an hour.
Russians are also working on redesigning the floor of a Boeing cargo plane to let it take more weight, a task that will take about 20,000 hours to complete. Boeing expects to offer Russian-designed in-flight bunks for use by crew members early next year; eventually, a version for passengers will be available for airlines to buy.
''There's a lot of freedom in design -- you propose what you think is the best solution to the problem,'' said Olga Volkova, a 39-year-old designer.
Several floors below the designers' offices, physicists and mathematicians, some from Moscow's foremost scientific research institutes, tackle other problems. Scientists like Sergei Medvedev, for example, have devised ways to test aircraft designs on regular desktop computers, an option far cheaper and faster than using supercomputers or wind tunnels.
There are some problems that cannot be solved by computers, however. Boeing still uses wind tunnels for some tests, for example. And Mr. Amelin recalled that when the Moscow center had just opened, a Russian and an American, neither of whom spoke the other's language, resolved a design problem through a series of back-and-forth scrawls on a scrap of paper.
''The thing that surprised me most is how similar we are,'' he said. ''Engineers think the same whether at Boeing or in a Russian company.''