The shortfall of fuselages arriving from Spirit AeroSystems at Boeing’s 737 plant in Renton is due to delays in receiving parts from subcontractors plus a shortage of skilled mechanics and quality issues in the factory. The problem is clouding Boeing’s planned 737 ramp up.
The problems at Spirit AeroSystems that have led to a shortfall of fuselages arriving at Boeing’s 737 assembly plant in Renton go far beyond delays in receiving parts from subcontractors, according to an internal document obtained by The Seattle Times.
Spirit is also struggling with a shortage of skilled mechanics and with quality issues inside its factory, according to the internal message from Vic McMullen, Spirit’s vice president of Wichita operations.
The message, sent to his team Monday, revealed even more problems than those cited in a Seattle Times story posted online Tuesday.
McMullen said the delay in fuselage deliveries has led Boeing to doubt Spirit’s ability to meet the ramp-up of 737 production from 47 to 52 jets per month planned for midyear.
“We have, for the first time that I can remember, impacted our customer’s ability to load their factory due to our fuselages being late,” McMullen’s message began. “This has created extreme pressures for them and has left them with doubt on our ability to produce at the required production rates.”
The complete fuselages from Spirit are delivered on rail cars daily from Wichita to Renton, where Boeing attaches the wings and installs all the airplane systems as well as the cabin interiors.
At the current production rate, at least two jets roll out every working day from the Renton assembly plant, requiring a steady supply of fuselages.
McMullen’s admission also clouds Boeing’s extensive plans to ramp up 737 production further, though Boeing on Wednesday said it can still make the planned rate increases.
Next year, Boeing’s announced production schedule calls for 57 jets per month and executives have said demand is so strong there is pressure to go higher.
At the annual Pacific Northwest Aerospace Alliance conference for local suppliers last month, attendees spoke confidently of an imminent Boeing plan to ramp up 737 production as high as 64 jets per month and perhaps beyond.
McMullen cited three factors driving the late fuselage deliveries from Spirit.
“The first relates to part shortages and part quality from the supply base,” he wrote, citing kits of parts arriving with missing pieces and logistics issues in delivering parts.
Spirit is addressing the part shortages by sending out “SWAT teams” of experts to more than a dozen of its suppliers to fix the issues.
“The second factor is labor,” McMullen wrote. “We all know we are short-handed when it comes to skilled mechanics.”
McMullen offered assurances that he’s actively working to hire qualified mechanics “to help reduce the stress a lot of you are feeling.”
“I know that you are working many hours of overtime to compensate for the shortfall in skilled labor,” he said.
So far this year, he said, Spirit has hired 900 new mechanics and has increased its training department by 30 to improve the skills of the new employees.
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In addition, he said Spirit has been hiring contractors as well as asking workers from other jet programs within the Wichita factory to come assist on the 737 fuselages.
“We have been left with no choice other than to move employees on a short-term assignment to both bridge the gap until permanent employees are released from training and recover our schedule,” he wrote.
McMullen then cited the third factor in the fuselage delays as poor quality workmanship in fabricating and assembling fuselage skin panels and other parts.
“Far too many mistakes are being made for different reasons,” McMullen wrote. “We have scrapped more skins and detailed parts than you could imagine.”
He urged his workers to take more time to make sure work is done correctly and to document defects when they occur so that they can be quickly addressed.
“Defects are often discovered in the 11th hour of shipping, which typically results in massive rework and ultimately another missed delivery,” McMullen said. “We must improve quickly! It is imperative that we recover this production line and restore our brand and reputation with our customer.”
Boeing had released a short statement Tuesday saying deliveries of 737s to airline customers have not yet been affected.
Asked about the seriousness of McMullen’s message Wednesday, Boeing said it works closely with Spirit as it plans production increases.
“We are confident in (Spirit’s) ability to meet our customers’ needs as we increase the 737 production rate later this year,” Boeing said.
Information in this article, originally published March 28, 2018, was corrected an hour after it was posted. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that McMullen’s message was sent out after The Seattle Times story was published online on Tuesday.