With its recent surge of hundreds of temporary workers, Boeing South Carolina will produce three 787 Dreamliners a month by midyear, a company spokeswoman said Friday in response to a report of production problems at the plant.
The company is in a fever pitch to build 10 Dreamliners a month to catch up on a backlog of hundreds of orders for the wide-body passenger jet. That rate will be ramped up to 12 a month in two years and to 14 a month by 2019.
Company workers in Everett, Wash., the nerve center of Boeing's aerospace operation with 10 times the workforce of the newer North Charleston campus, are assembling the other seven 787s a month, spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said.
The temporary workers are expected to be at the North Charleston site for several months. Eslinger couldn't say if they will be around when the 787-9, a stretch version of the wide-body passenger jet, will start full production in South Carolina this fall.
"We use contract labor to address our surge requirements as needed," she said.
Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia with The Teal Group said Boeing is now paying for an ill-timed decision to let experienced contractors go from the young North Charleston plant last year, just before it placed more demands on the site.
"They made a decision to cut costs, and it doesn't appear to have paid off," Aboulafia said. "It reinforces the long-standing belief that it's tough to start a new production line."
Unidentified Boeing workers in Washington state this week complained in a widely read Seattle Times story of extra work being sent their way from North Charleston. The report cited missing cables and unconnected wires among a host of other unfinished items on 787 Dreamliner fuselages sent to the Puget Sound area for completion.
Eslinger said uncompleted parts don't affect the quality of the planes. She also said they don't represent "poorly done work," as the report characterized it.
"Our focus is building the highest-quality airplanes and delivering on our commitments to our customers," Eslinger said. "Sometimes when a program like the 787 is producing at high rates, it's sometimes best to (move) the work elsewhere and keep that production system operating at the same pace."
The North Charleston site builds Boeing's aft-body sections and installs the equipment in the Italian-made mid-body fuselages for every 787 that leaves the two final assembly plants. Some sections are used on planes completed in North Charleston. The majority of them are transported in 747 cargo jets to the larger plant in Everett.
Eslinger said the company doesn't like sending uncompleted plane parts to Washington but added that sometimes it's unavoidable to keep production flowing.
"Sometimes it's necessary," she said. "It could be from unavailability of parts or other factors."
Boeing has a term for unfinished parts or aircraft sections that it moves to another assembly line position or another plant to be completed. It's called "traveled work."
"In an ideal world, traveled work would never happen. ... Right now we are traveling more work than we like from mid-body to final assembly," Eslinger said. "If a unit such as the aft-body or mid-body is scheduled to be moved and it's not complete, then it's at a decision point to hold it or move it and finish it at the next stage of the production process."
In each step of the way, the process is coordinated and documented, she said. That means unfinished parts sent down the production line are signed off by the person in charge, and it's understood by those on the receiving end that unfinished work is coming their way.
A trio of decisions last year resulted in the need to send more uncompleted sections to Everett than anticipated. Those same decisions also prompted Boeing to hire a surge of contract workers in January to help meet the production goals in North Charleston.
Last spring, the company let go its temporary hires, many with technical expertise. Then Boeing introduced aft- and mid-body work for the new and longer 787-9 to the North Charleston campus. In the fall, the company decided to boost the production rate for the entire 787 program by 40 percent over several years.
Saj Ahmad, an aviation analyst with StrategicAeroResearch, said Boeing is wise to invest in temporary workers now.
"Putting resources there now rather than later is a better cure than to wait for bottlenecks or out-of-sequence work to escalate to the point where production has to slow or stop, which is far more costly than adding resources now," Ahmad said.
He suspects the 787-10, the biggest and newest version of the jet, will face the same "teething problems" when production starts on that plane as well.
This year, Boeing expects to deliver 110 Dreamliners from both of its production locations, Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith said during a recent earnings report.
Eslinger said the North Charleston plant is meeting its production goals.
The Boeing South Carolina plant started building jets less than three years ago. Eslinger said workers are rising to meet the challenge.
"The workforce here in South Carolina has accomplished a lot in the few short years that they have been assembling airplanes," she said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.
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