Boeing changes way planes are made with 787

The super freighter "Dreamlifter" aircraft, carrying the massive mid-body fuselage for the first Boeing 787 "Dreamliner," taxis to the unloading area  in Everett, Wash, earlier this month. The tail of the specially designed 747 freighter swings open for huge payloads that are unloaded using one of the largest cargo loaders in the world.
The super freighter "Dreamlifter" aircraft, carrying the massive mid-body fuselage for the first Boeing 787 "Dreamliner," taxis to the unloading area  in Everett, Wash, earlier this month. The tail of the specially designed 747 freighter swings open for huge payloads that are unloaded using one of the largest cargo loaders in the world.Kevin P. Casey / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

When machinists start the final stages of assembling the first 787 Dreamliner, the din of pounding rivet guns won’t echo through the factory as it does on production lines for Boeing Co.’s other jets.

Instead of hundreds of panels of aluminum, the 787’s major components are being built mostly or entirely of carbon-fiber composite materials that are essentially baked in giant pressure cookers, flown in from faraway factories, then fastened together.

In the past, workers at Boeing plants have stuffed the electrical wiring, hydraulic systems and other innards into planes as they got assembled here, but with the 787, suppliers scattered all over the globe are doing that work.

“Basically ... we’re snapping it together,” said Tom Wroblewski, president of the union representing Boeing production workers in the Seattle area. “This is a whole new way of assembling an aircraft.”

Boeing’s Dreamlifter, the 747 superfreighter it modified to transport large parts of the Dreamliner, made the last of four deliveries for the first 787 this past week. The company will show them off Monday when it hosts a grand opening for the 787 factory line, right next to the 777 line in a plant north of Seattle.

At first, the Dreamliner assembly line will look much like those of other planes, because Boeing has pulled in extra workers to install wiring in the first few planes, said Mike Bair, head of the 787 program. The company decided to start flying in unfinished parts rather than risk falling behind schedule. Eventually, there will be fewer workers on the factory floor, because it won’t take as many people to join the huge prefabricated parts.

So far, Boeing says everything has been running smoothly, even as some production issues have cropped up. The horizontal stabilizer that will be part of the first plane’s tail arrived with dings on its surface, indicating it wasn’t handled properly during the shipping process. And temporary fasteners on some parts will have to be replaced because of an industrywide shortage of permanent ones.

The company expected some bumps in the road and has contingency plans to deal with them, spokeswoman Mary Hanson said.

If glitches become a big enough problem, Wroblewski said machinists are eager for the chance to do more of the work themselves.

“We need to be ready and available to pick up that slack and show them we can do it better than the supplier, and our hope is then that we can draw that work back,” to the Seattle area, Wroblewski said.

Boeing executives insist the company has ample experience managing outside suppliers that build parts for its other planes, and that it’s confident the 787’s manufacturing network will be a success.

“All it takes is one part and you can’t build an airplane,” Bair said. “One bolt and you can be in trouble. So managing that is nothing new.”

Bair said it’s unlikely that substantial amounts of work will be shifted back to the Seattle area.

“Clearly the plan is to make sure that all these partners will do what they have committed that they’re going to do,” he said.

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with aerospace and defense consulting firm Teal Group, predicts Boeing’s suppliers will make the grade, even if there are occasional snags.

“I certainly expect hiccups,” Aboulafia said.

Boeing hasn’t said how much money it has saved by having suppliers take on various development costs, but industry analyst Scott Hamilton said it’s bound to be substantial.

“That kind of risk-sharing, which in the aggregate runs in the billions of dollars, is money that Boeing doesn’t have to front,” he said.

Once production hits full speed, it will take roughly 700 to 800 machinists to run the 787’s final assembly line, Bair said. That’s substantially less than the work force needed for Boeing’s other jets, though Connie Kelliher, spokeswoman for the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers District 751, said she couldn’t offer a hard number as a comparison because the company doesn’t break out employee totals by production line.

The 787 is a double-edged sword for machinists.

On the one hand, it has given Boeing a huge boost as it’s hustled to win back the edge it once had over its European rival Airbus SAS. The company has won more than 500 orders for the midsize, long-haul jet, which Boeing says will be 20 percent more fuel-efficient than comparable jets and cheaper to maintain because composites are more durable than aluminum.

Machinists handled much of the research and development Boeing used to make its business case for the 787, then winced as the work got handed off to outside suppliers.

“The rub is always that if we’re good enough to do the R&D, and we can prove that it’s a good process, it should just stay in the skilled hands of the people that develop it,” Kelliher said.

Boeing has said the outsourcing was crucial to keeping development and production costs low enough to make the 787 a good enough bargain that airlines would buy it.

Boeing remains on track to roll out the first plane on July 8 (i.e., 7-8-07), begin initial test flights around late August and deliver the first 787 to Japan’s All Nippon Airways Co. next May.

For the first two years, Bair said the company will deliver 112 planes, with final assembly of each one taking three days on average. Beyond those numbers, Boeing won’t say much about the production rate it’s shooting for, but Bair said the company is already working on plans to pick up the pace.

“It’s pretty clear that our initial thoughts about the market demand were too conservative,” Bair said.

Boeing has fielded so many orders for the 787, airlines that order them today won’t be able to get them until 2013, the same year Airbus’ competing A350 XWB is scheduled to enter commercial service.