Boeing is offering a one-time bonus of 8 percent of a year’s pay to workers at the 787 Dreamliner plant in North Charleston, S.C., if they can fix the production problems there within the next few months.
To reduce the deluge of work that has been flowing unfinished to Everett’s final-assembly plant, managers in Charleston also are reorganizing the myriad jobs involved in assembling the jet’s mid-fuselage, where the worst bottleneck is.
And Boeing says it has completed the first step in its campaign to control Charleston’s production problems: rapidly hiring 1,100 workers, many of them skilled contractors, in the past three months.
However, a big backlog has built up. Last week, the mid-fuselage build teams were just shy of 8,000 jobs behind schedule. At recent rates, that’s about 10 days of work.
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“There are still a lot of wiring issues,” and efforts to fix that are “taking a lot of manpower and a lot of hours,” said a manager in Charleston.
The most recent fuselage sections delivered to Everett from Charleston are those for Dreamliner No. 178.
Boeing’s latest target, said the manager, is to minimize the work traveling incomplete to Everett by Dreamliner No. 195. That would be within a couple months.
“But to me it still feels chaotic,” cautioned the manager, who, like other employees cited in this story, spoke on condition of anonymity because Boeing doesn’t allow workers to speak without authorization. “I don’t think that will happen by line number 195.”
Meanwhile in Everett, work is still backing up as sections arrive missing not only major wiring bundles but even the brackets that hold the wiring.
According to three people in the factory, work on both 787 assembly lines in Everett slid by two to three days in the past week, despite mandatory overtime through the weekend for many mechanics.
“If parts are not there, you cannot do your job,” said one Everett mechanic. “The whole process has to stop until we go backwards and do what wasn’t done in Charleston.”
Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel insisted that “the 787 program remains on track to meet its delivery commitments” despite “a temporary increase” in the number of jobs behind schedule in Charleston.
He declined to respond to specifics, such as the number of jobs lagging in Charleston.
Birtel said the additional work traveling to Everett to be done in final assembly “is planned and well understood.”
“Traveled work is something we deal with in all production programs,” Birtel said, adding that the Charleston “mid-body team is working to a plan that will result in improved performance, and significantly less additional work (traveling to Everett), in the months ahead.”
Dangling an incentive
Boeing Charleston mechanics build the mid-fuselage and rear-fuselage sections of all 787s. They also do final assembly of some 787s, working toward a goal of assembling three jets per month. The site employs just over 8,000, including contractors.
The bottleneck is the plant where they build the mid-fuselage sections, which are 84 feet long for 787-8 models and 104 feet long for the 787-9 models.
In that plant, workers join the big pieces of the structure, thread wiring, air ducts and hydraulic lines through the barrel, and finish the cabin walls. Each piece of that work is broken down into thousands of smaller jobs.
Since fall, after Boeing stepped up the pace of overall production to 10 jets per month, the mechanics have been overwhelmed.
To keep production flowing, managers have sent the mid-fuselages to Everett with more than 1,000 unfinished jobs per fuselage, adding immense pressure on final-assembly workers here.
To fix that, Boeing is now dangling an incentive: If the workers can get the jobs behind schedule at the entire Boeing South Carolina site below 3,500 by April 30, engineers and managers will get a flat $2,500 and mechanics will get a bonus equal to 8 percent of last year’s pay.
Any jobs that travel to Everett aren’t counted in the bonus calculation. Once an airplane section leaves South Carolina, any incomplete jobs shift from Charleston’s to-do list to Everett’s.
The incentive bonus would be on top of Boeing’s regular annual bonus, which just this month paid the Charleston workforce an extra 18 days’ pay.
If the target is missed in April but achieved by June 30, the bonus paid will be 40 percent less.
If the target is not reached by the end of June, there will be no bonus.
The manager in Charleston said some progress is already apparent, with the mid-body plant now completing 1,000 jobs per day, versus 800 recently.
And last week, Boeing cleared a significant hurdle when the Federal Aviation Administration approved wiring installations on Dreamliner No. 158 in Charleston.
FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said the wiring inspections just completed on No. 158 were “standard practice” after a wiring design change.
However, the Charleston manager said the process received careful scrutiny because of repeated issues with wires getting nicked during installation, damaging the insulation shielding.
In response, Boeing has shifted doing the wiring work that goes in the crown of the mid-fuselage to a back shop, instead of on the plane.
This wiring is installed on overhead cradles that are then brought into the mid-fuselage, he said.
Boeing managers are also reorganizing the mid-fuselage work, aiming to create a clearly defined package of tasks that has to be done in Charleston, and another reduced set that will travel to Everett — called “intentional” traveled work.
The idea is that Everett will start to get the same traveled work each time — and less of it — rather than the mixed bag of late, said an engineer in Charleston.
The initial goal is to cut in half the man-hours needed to complete the mid-body traveled work in Everett, reducing it from 800 to 400, the Charleston manager said.
In another effort to streamline Charleston, planners are combing through the system to reduce the number of required quality inspections as work progresses.
Quality inspectors will still have final buy-off on all work, but the aim is to reduce the number of inspections along every step of the way, said the Charleston engineer.
Boeing spokesman Doug Alder said this is normal “optimization.”
“Boeing is always reviewing its quality system to optimize the number of inspection points,” Alder said. “We continue to employ rigorous processes, oversight and monitoring.”
Both the engineer and the production manager in Charleston said the problems there are directly traceable to the cutback of skilled contractors last year, just before the pace of 787 production stepped up to 10 planes per month.
“Upper management is starting to see that was a mistake,” said the engineer.
“It’s not for lack of effort by the mechanics,” said the manager. “People here work hard. But there are not enough of us.”
Earlier this month, at an aerospace suppliers conference in Lynnwood, Stan Deal, the Boeing vice president in charge of the supply chain, said work traveling incomplete to final assembly is “not uncommon.”
“We are seeing some bumps along the road in our supply chain,” Deal said. “We’ve got a team focused on that in Charleston…. You manage it. You deal with it. Then you move on.”
Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org