Boeing Co. is looking to open a new factory in the Charleston area by this time next year to assemble engine components for its 737 MAX jetliner, while planning for an expansion that could nearly triple the size of the building.
Lay of the land
Boeing has four plants in North Charleston, all tied to the 787 Dreamliner.
Two at its main campus at Charleston International Airport supply the mid- and aft-body fuselage structures. Both are being expanded.
Another in Palmetto Commerce Park, a fast-growing manufacturing corridor between Ashley Phosphate and Ladson roads, makes interior components for the 787.
The company’s biggest local operation is the 787 final-assembly building at Charleston International. Boeing also assembles the 787 in Everett, Wash.
The company began soliciting bids from a small group of real estate developers and landlords for the proposed plant about a month ago. It would house engineers and assembly workers for the 737 MAX work it is bringing to the Lowcountry.
The firm that wins the job will have to work quickly — Boeing wants to it to be completed by next June, according to its request for proposals.
The company said it needs a site that can accommodate a 220,000-square-foot building with 300 parking spaces and have enough land to expand the structure to 600,000 square feet and 700 spaces. For perspective, Boeing’s centerpiece final-assembly building at Charleston International Airport is 1.2 million square feet.
Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger confirmed the factory search but declined to say how many workers might be employed there.
“On May 9, Boeing issued a request-for-proposal ... to select landlords/developers for a potential 737 MAX inlet engineering and assembly facility in (the) local area,” she said in a statement. “We have begun soliciting bids at this time because of the potential lead times for permitting, design and construction.”
Boeing’s North Charleston operation has been dedicated to the 787 Dreamliner, but that’s clearly changing — and fast.
In late March Boeing announced plans to concentrate half of its information technology work in three places, one being North Charleston, over the next few years.
A month ago the company said it was bringing 20 workers here to do inlet work for the 737 MAX, work that is done by an outside supplier for the 737 Next Generation now in production.
And a week ago Boeing announced plans to establish new centers for commercial aircraft engineering design and propulsion in South Carolina.
Together, they demonstrate the Chicago-based aerospace giant’s commitment to diversify away from its historic stronghold in Washington state, in large part by building its operations here.
This week was the first time Eslinger confirmed that the Charleston area will handle not only engineering of the 737 MAX nacelles, which include the circular inlets and carbon-reinforced composite pods that encase the engines, but also their assembly.
Though the company hasn’t said as much, the expandable new factory could be the promised propulsion center, according to Saj Ahmad, a London-based analyst with strategicaeroresearch.com, or even where Boeing builds the composite wing for its upcoming 777X jet.
“After all, SC is a centre for composite technology engineering excellence and there is the capital, labour and infrastructure and skill to make those wings there,” Ahmad wrote in an email Thursday.
Boeing has committed to assembling the new 737 MAX in Renton, Wash., where it makes the 737 NG now, but hasn’t said yet whether it will make the 777X in Everett, where it does 777 final assembly now.
Boeing did specify in the solicitation that the new local factory site would have to be within 20 miles of the 787 Dreamliner campus at the airport.
The company wants to finalize the lease by July 31. Offers are due Monday.
Investing in S.C.
The 737 MAX is a fourth version of Boeing’s best-selling, single-aisle passenger jet. The plane has amassed more than 1,000 orders since its launch in August 2011.
One difference from older versions of the 737 is that the MAX’s larger engines will cut fuel consumption and emissions by as much as 13 percent over today’s most fuel-efficient single-aisle airplanes, according to Boeing.
Other features include an aerodynamic, split wingtip that will produce less drag.
First delivery is scheduled for late 2017.
Boeing employs more than 6,000 workers at four factories in North Charleston that work on the 787.
The company recently committed to investing another $1.1 billion and creating 2,000 more jobs in South Carolina in exchange for $120 million in state money that can be used for land purchases and infrastructure work.
Charleston County also has agreed to reduce Boeing’s tax burden through a “fee-in-lieu” deal, and to spend $80 million of the fees Boeing will pay on road improvements around and between its factories.
Boeing also is poised to buy 320 acres from the Charleston County Aviation Authority, a deal that’s under review by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Reach John McDermott at 937-5572. Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906.