Boeing's startling decision in 2009 to build its newest jetliner in South Carolina was skewered by some as a huge miscalculation, especially among the rank-and-file in Washington state, home of the company's commercial aircraft division.
Building at Boeing
1. Component paint
This is where the aft- and mid-body sections are painted. It is being expanded by 37,000 square feet to 103,000 square feet. The expansion will add two paint booths to the existing four. Part of it was completed in December. The rest is expected to be done by year's end.
2. Dreamlifter operations center
The Dreamlifter carries aft- and mid-bodies of the 787 Dreamliner assembled locally to Washington state, where the 787 is also assembled. Operating out of a trailer before, the 94,000-square-foot center was completed in February behind the mid-body building.
On the main Boeing campus, the aft-body building is expanding on three sides by 276,000 square feet to 662,000 square feet. By fall, everything should be functional. It now includes a cafe.
4. Final assembly
The 1.1-million-square-foot building is not expanding, at least not yet, but 67,000 square feet of office space for engineers was added on some unfinished floors. Work there was finished in December. Environmental plans filed then show the building expanding by about two-thirds with a dual production line for 787s, but Boeing said the plans are conceptual. The building was designed for future expansion.
A second giant industrial oven that bakes aft-body sections to bind together the composite materials will be in place by spring 2016 within a small expansion to the aft-body building.
6. Fire station
Construction started in April on a 10,000-square-foot fire station. It will open in the first quarter of 2015. Boenig already has a firetruck and staff based in the site services building along International Boulevard.
7. 787 paint facility
Construction is expected to begin by October on a 230,000-square-foot building to paint jets in customers' logos. Currently, 787s built in North Charleston are flown to Texas or California to be painted and then flown back to the local plant for delivery to customers. Completion is expected in mid-2016. It will sit to the right SCRA, which is moving to Summerville in October.
8. Flight line
The current parking area for completed 787s has room for seven jets. The filing in December shows an expanded flight line that can handle 16 Dreamliners. Boeing said the plans are conceptual.
9. 737 MAX propulsion plant
Under construction behind Boeing's 787 interior fabrication plant in Palmetto Commerce Park in North Charleston, it will be 225,000 square feet when it starts production on engine inlet parts for the new single-aisle jet in mid-2015. The plant is being built for possible expansion for up to 600,000 square feet. The first 737 MAX is planned to enter service in 2017. Boeing already has more than 2,000 orders from 40 customers worldwide. Boeing won't release the number of plant employees, but parking for 300 vehicles is being added with future expansion allowing for up to 700 vehicles.
Boeing South Carolina
Airplane manufacturing isn't for amateurs, and this ill-conceived East Coast experiment was doomed for failure, was the overriding sentiment.
The pointed pessimism has since softened considerably as Boeing has continued to plow more money into its North Charleston operations.
For example, the aerospace giant will invest in a paint facility for the 787 Dreamliner this year at its Charleston International Airport campus. It's also erecting a 225,000-square-foot propulsion center in nearby Palmetto Commerce Park to build engine inlet components for its 737 MAX.
And Boeing hasn't even disclosed yet what it has in mind for about 500 acres it has secured for future expansion across International Boulevard from its 787 factory. All the company has said so far is that it's committed to investing another $1 billion and creating 2,000 more jobs in South Carolina by 2020.
A union official from the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace summed up the situation during a recent visit to North Charleston to meet with Boeing workers in North Charleston.
"Boeing is here to stay," spokesman Bill Dugovich said.
The engineers union believes the North Charleston operation will become more seasoned as the local work force matures, especially now that the 787 production rate is finally reaching acceptable levels in North Charleston. The plant, which has been dogged by numerous start-up glitches and delays, completed its first Dreamliner about two years ago.
"I think they will start developing some expertise," said Rich Plunkett, SPEEA's director of strategic development. "They will develop some tribal knowledge."
Boeing watcher Saj Ahmad with StrategicAero Research echoed their remarks.
"This is a 50- to 75-year-plus investment that will see the 787 family built here and develop the business into a specialist hub for composite technology and other materials of excellence," the London-based analyst said.
Boeing makes parts for and assembles the 787-8 in North Charleston. It also makes parts for the longer 787-9 and will start assembling its first "Dash-9" in the fall. A decision on the assembly site for the 787-10, the biggest version of the jet, is expected this year. Ahmad believes the Lowcountry is a shoo-in for production.
"The 787 factory will be expanded in the coming years, not only to accommodate the biggest 787, the 787-10, but also to push ahead with production output," Ahmad said. "Boeing has always envisaged its South Carolina plant to mirror what Everett (Wash.) does."
Workers at the local plant are on target to build three 787s a month by midyear, adding to the seven a month being produced in Everett. In 2016, the production rate will ramp up to 12 a month between the two plants and 14 a month by 2019 to catch up on more than 1,000 Dreamliner orders from 69 worldwide customers. Through April, 144 had been delivered.
Ahmad said the learning curve is still steep for the relatively new factory in North Charleston, but it is catching up.
"The rapid way in which they introduced the 787-9, fell behind on work and then caught it all back up within a matter of months proves that not only is the tenacity there to right any production wrongs, similar to what was seen in Everett, but that Boeing is continually investing in human capital to make the plant a success," he said.
Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Ray Conner said during an investors conference Wednesday in Seattle that the 787 has been a "productivity journey," but "we are now moving into a production-stable environment. I think we will see the learning curve come down substantially."
He added that he and Boeing Co. CEO Jim McNerney were in North Charleston recently to check on production gains. Conner said the improvements set up the local plant for the increased production rates over the next five years.
"We feel very, very good about the progress we have made there," he said. "They are doing fabulous work down there."
Ahmad said Boeing's growth in North Charleston is all part of a long-term plan that's still under wraps.
"The investment Boeing is making in North Charleston is not foolhardy," he said. "North Charleston overall is expanding, and the additional land bought will not sit idle. Boeing is taking more proactive, rather than reactive steps to better align the commercial arm of its business to the changing dynamics of labor, expertise, financing and the wider supply chain. That, too, builds on the 'Partnering for Success' program that Boeing is working through now with suppliers to extract better concessions and drive up quality and productivity."
The bottom line
Some of the Boeing construction going on now is tied to its promise in April 2013 to invest another $1 billion and add 2,000 more jobs by 2020.
"It means Boeing is committed to South Carolina and staying in South Carolina for many years to come," Boeing S.C. spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said. "We are investing in our infrastructure and investing in our people, and we are investing in the state."
Some of those jobs already have been added. Others are on the way. About 7,200 employees are at the site now, but some of those are temporary contract workers.
Last fall, Boeing announced some of the engineering work for the new 777X passenger jet, to be built near Seattle, will be done in North Charleston. It also is bringing up to 400 research jobs as part of a "Center for Manufacturing and Technology" that's being established locally. The completion of the 737 MAX plant is expected to add even more jobs by July 2015.
"Boeing is looking at continued expansion, and they see an ongoing demand for their product," College of Charleston economist Frank Hefner said. "They see this as the location to do the expansion because it's a lower-cost environment than Seattle. That's the bottom line. It's a combination of regulations, unions and efficiencies among other things."
As for the Charleston area, the Lowcountry can thank Boeing for largely leading the region out of the steep economic downturn before any other area of the state, Hefner said.
"Boeing is one reason why the Charleston Metro area has replaced all the jobs lost during the recession and the rest of the state is still catching up," he said. "That's why we are the bright spot in the state in terms of industrial expansion. It's a deepening of the aviation industry here, which means it will be more integrated, with more suppliers and more training opportunities for workers."
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.
Construction crews assemble the outer wall of the new Boeing Propulsion South Carolina plant in North Charleston. The plant will make engine inlet components for the new 737 MAX single-aisle passenger jet. It is expected to open in mid-2015.×
Construction crews assemble the outer wall of the new Boeing Propulsion South Carolina plant in Palmetto Commerce Park in North Charleston. The plant will make engine inlet components for the new 737 MAX single-aisle passenger jet.×
Construction continues on the new Boeing propulsion plant in North Charleston, where engine inlet components for the 737 MAX single-aisle passenger jet will be made.×