A significant and diverse aerospace cluster is forming in South Carolina. Boeing supplier GKN is building a state-of-the-art facility to fabricate intricate parts for Boeing’s new 737 MAX and 777X jets, alongside an existing facility that makes 747, 787 and other MAX parts.
ORANGEBURG, S.C. — An hour’s drive northwest of Boeing’s main manufacturing complex in South Carolina, British aerospace firm GKN is building a state-of-the-art facility to fabricate intricate parts for the jetmaker’s newest airplane programs, the 737 MAX and 777X.
Inside the $25 million facility, massive pieces of equipment are already installed. In the center of the floor, a 52-foot-high oven slides on rails over a 20-foot-deep pit, where it will drop heated aluminum into a tank for rapid cooling.
This is just one step in the multistage process of making the smooth metal rim that can be seen at the front of the engine pods of a commercial jet.
Called a lip skin, this doughnut-shaped part must be carefully machined and shaped to ensure a smooth air flow, and must be hardened so it’s tough enough for years of durability.
On a recent visit, construction workers were busily installing in the 126,000-square-foot space machines similar to potter’s wheels for forming aluminum sheets into the lip- skin shape; machines for cutting, polishing and inspecting the metal; and a series of large chemical baths and paint booths.
Production of the MAX lip skin begins in June, and for the 777X a year later.
“Everything in this building is sized for 777X,” says Bill Beard, the GKN vice president who runs the plant.
Floor grids, lip skins, winglets
The GKN lip-skin facility will bring Orangeburg 80 new jobs and a high-tech capability that may bring further work later. The company has 16 acres of adjacent empty land for expansion.
The operation underscores how Boeing has boosted South Carolina’s economy in ways beyond the 7,500 jobs it has added directly in North Charleston. Drawing in suppliers such as GKN, the region is blossoming into a significant and diversifying aerospace cluster.
The new lip skin facility stands near an existing GKN aircraft parts-assembly plant that opened here in 2012 and now has a mix of Boeing and other aircraft company work.
There, GKN is assembling the 40-foot-long composite fuselages of the HondaJet, a seven-seat corporate business jet that is final-assembled in Greensboro, N.C.
It’s also making the complex floor grid for the rear fuselage section of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner.
The plant is currently building four of these per month, with the rest made by Boeing in North Charleston. But Boeing is offloading all this work to GKN, so that by July it will build 12 of the floor grids per month.
These grids are moved at night on huge Boeing trailers down the freeway to the 787 aft fuselage plant in North Charleston.
And later this year, GKN will begin assembling here half of all the advanced split winglets needed for the 737 MAX. The plant has room for three assembly lines, ready to ramp up to 52 winglets every month by 2018.
The manufacturing unit of Korean Air will make an equal volume of the MAX winglets, and both companies will ship them to a GKN facility in Sumner, Wash., for painting, before their final destination in the 737 final-assembly plant in Renton.
The assembly plant now employs 150. As the lip-skin fabrication facility ramps up, that will grow to 200 jobs by year end.
Though South Carolina’s production workforce lacks the deep history of aerospace experience the Pacific Northwest can boast, that isn’t holding back GKN.
Like Boeing, it’s beginning to build in place the expertise it needs. It comes cheaper than it does in Washington state — and without a union.
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Beard said the assembly jobs in the older building are coveted for the clean, heated working conditions. The workers there are paid close to $14 per hour, he said.
Workers in the new lip skin fabrication plant will be more skilled and will be paid more, Beard said, though he declined to be specific.
While GKN has hired a small number of engineers and professional staff from around the country, the production workers are all local hires, many of them with experience in manufacturing, though not in aerospace.
The state of South Carolina has helped identify candidates for production jobs by giving pre-hire training in evening classes at the local Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College. The college also provides three weeks of post-hire training geared to GKN’s needs.
“We’ve been able to hire a very good pool of candidates with manufacturing experience,” said Beard. “We’ve had great success with that.”