Inside Boeing’s Everett plant last week, mechanics busily worked on jets, with the larger Dreamliner 787-9s interspersed on two assembly lines with the original 787-8 models.
On a guided tour ahead of the Farnborough Air Show, Pat Shanahan, Boeing’s senior vice president in charge of all airplane programs, showed off progress in assembling the 787 and pointed to heavy construction activity already under way to build infrastructure for future 777X work.
“Think back to 2007 through 2011,” said Shanahan, referring to the worst period of 787 problems and delays. “We were really struggling to get out of the ditch.
“As we go into the Air Show, Boeing is in a much, much different position,” he said. “We’re set up really well to be successful.”
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Shanahan rattled off some remarkable statistics to prove his point:
In 2011, Boeing delivered a total of 477 airplanes. This year, it will deliver more than 700.
In 2010, before the first 787 went to a customer, the Everett plant delivered 86 widebody jets. This year, it will deliver more than 200.
In 2012, because of the backlog of 787 problems, 71 unfinished jets were stacked up on the ramps at Paine Field. By the end of last year, that figure was down to 36.
Seven years to the day after the first 787 Dreamliner was ceremonially rolled out — an event that proved more fake then real, followed by three years of delays — Shanahan lauded Boeing’s giant choreographed industrial exercise at Everett today: juggling smooth development of the new 787-9 with multiple production-rate increases at the same time as readying new technology for 777X.
Even last year, when battery problems grounded the 787 worldwide for five months, that didn’t faze the production system in Everett, he said.
“We made all our deliveries, we made all our rate increases, and we kept the 787-9 on schedule,” said Shanahan. “We’ve shown we can overcome just about anything.”
Inside the plant, there’s no sign of the temporary scaffolding and fixture workarounds that were needed earlier to make retrofit repairs and design changes on 787s.
At the beginning of the assembly process, when the wings are attached, a very visible change to the method of assembly has improved efficiency.
Previously the big fuselage sections that come in from North Charleston, S.C., and Wichita, Kan. were joined into a complete fuselage and then the tail was attached before the wings were added.
Boeing found a better way. The wings are now added to the mid-fuselage section before it’s joined, while the other sections are worked on separately.
That splits what was a single assembly station into two and avoids congestion with too many mechanics in one confined area.
Shanahan said Boeing will deliver 787s to 18 new customers this year, and will double the fleet in service worldwide.
Total flow time for assembly from one end of the assembly line to the other is down to 30 days.
Plans are in place to shave two days off that in December, and to have it down to 21 days by the spring of 2016.
Shanahan credited the progress not only to the Everett workforce but also to the supply chain, including employees at the South Carolina manufacturing complex that builds all of the 787 mid-body and aft fuselages and assembles three Dreamliners per month.
Complaints by some Boeing mechanics in Washington state of shoddy work out of South Carolina were fueled by an incident late last month when hundreds of temporary fasteners fell out of a Dreamliner during assembly after a team from North Charleston had done some catch-up work on the fuselage in Everett.
Shanahan said the collars had been left off the temporary fasteners because the mechanics were blocked by the cradle holding the fuselage.
Workers on the next shift removed the cradle without knowing the state the fasteners were in.
“It was an example of miscommunication between two shifts and not a reflection of the competence of the mechanics” from South Carolina, Shanahan said.
He said that after acknowledged problems last fall and into this year as the North Charleston fuselage plants struggled with the introduction of the 787-9 and the rate increase to 10 jets per month, the number of jobs behind schedule has been reduced by more than 70 percent since the beginning of this year.
“There will always be issues. That’s the nature of this business,” Shanahan said.
He pointed out that the South Carolina workforce performs the most complex jobs within the commercial-airplane unit.
It builds the aft fuselage from scratch, starting by winding carbon-fiber tape to create the composite barrel; puts together the mid-fuselage from sections arriving from Japan and Italy; installs systems in those sections; and also does final assembly.
Everett and North Charleston are “one team,” he said. “The two plants are inextricably linked … The more South Carolina can perform, the faster Everett will deliver the jets.”
Now that the rate increases in all the commercial-jet programs have been achieved, he said Boeing has two years of stable production ahead, which will allow further big efficiency improvements.
Meanwhile, through the doors at the rear of the second 787 assembly line in Everett, noisy preparations are under way for Boeing’s next widebody jet, the 777X, an update of Boeing’s large twinjet featuring giant composite wings.
“We’re getting ready for the X,” Shanahan said.
At the site of the future wing facility, trucks have begun creating huge piles of dirt that will be used to fill in the grade level after some office buildings on a lower level are demolished.
By the fall of 2015, Shanahan said, the world’s three largest autoclaves — high pressure ovens for baking carbon-fiber composites to hardness — will be installed. Boeing will start fabricating wing structures in 2016.
Around the corner, a deep hole is partly dug, the foundation for the new building where the 777X fuselage will be assembled with new robotic automation technology.
“Everett is undergoing a complete transformation,” Shanahan said.
Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or email@example.com