Boeing is cutting the 747-8 production rate to one per month in a move to sustain the program until the ongoing recovery in air cargo materializes into much anticipated new orders.

The cutback to just 12 aircraft per year comes despite signs of increasing health in the international freight market and a yet-to-be-finalized deal with cargo-operator Volga-Dnepr, announced at last week’s Paris Air Show for up to 20 aircraft. Boeing, however, says action needs to be taken now to reduce production as, the current firm-order backlog has dwindled to only 32, of which 14 are -8 Freighters, and the balance, passenger models.

The decision to slow the rate to the smallest annual output at which Boeing can profitably produce the aircraft was not unexpected given the pressures on the program. News of the slowdown option first emerged last month when Commercial Airplanes President Ray Conner discussed the outlook for the 747-8 at a Boeing investor conference in Chicago on May 12.

The rate reduction continues a gradual production cutback that began in 2013, when the 747-8 was built at two per month. In April 2013, the company announced it would be reducing the build rate to 1.75 per month, and later the same year, it announced this would be further reduced to a 1.5-per-month rate. The program is slowing to 1.3 per month by September, and will begin transitioning to the lower rate in March 2016.

“We can finally gain stability at a rate we can feel comfortable with,” 747 Vice President and General Manager Bruce Dickinson said. Production efficiencies introduced over the past six years will enable the line to remain profitable at the reduced rates, he added. Assembly time for one of the latest 747-8s, line number 1520, is 25% that of the first -8, line number 1420. “We have really streamlined the parts operation, cleaned up the factory and are working a lot of lean practices. We’ve worked incredibly hard and to stay profitable while reducing rate has been no small task,” he added.

Dickinson says the new rate in 2016 will position Boeing to be ready for an anticipated upturn in freighter orders and a market which the company forecasts will require 660 new large-cargo aircraft over the next 20 years. “Now we’ve had six quarters of strong growth and, like any cycle, we are at the point where all the useful parked fleet of 747-400Fs and -400ERFs has been pulled out of the desert. All that capacity has been absorbed and now we are transitioning to a time when we see what companies like Volga are doing.”

Boeing will continue to review the production rate through 2016, and is expected to see potential for a return to higher rates if orders come in for the 747-400F replacement market from 2020-23 onward.