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A decade after landing in North Charleston, Boeing SC remains on sharp trajectory

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Brad Zaback

Brad Zaback (left), vice president and general manager of Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner program, meets with a group of workers who have been at the North Charleston plant throughout its 10-year history. Provided/Boeing Co.

For Brad Zaback, the 10th anniversary of Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner campus in North Charleston isn't so much a time to reflect on the past but to plan for the future.

"It has been incredible to watch this facility in a short 10 years get to the point where it is, and with the trajectory it's on, it's going to continue to improve," said Zaback, vice president and general manager of the 787 program.

"We're going to continue to grow and we're going to continue to earn more work from Boeing."

It was a decade ago that Boeing announced plans to build its first commercial airplane assembly plant away from the company's traditional Puget Sound, Wash., manufacturing base.

Brad Zaback

Brad Zaback is Boeing Co.'s vice president and general manager for the 787 Dreamliner program. Provided

Since then, Boeing has added an engine design and manufacturing center, a factory that makes interior cabin parts, a research and technology center and a two-bay paint hangar to its South Carolina holdings while providing maintenance for the C-17 Globemaster cargo planes at the adjacent Charleston Air Force Base.

At the same time, nearly 350 wide-body Dreamliners have been delivered to Boeing customers at the North Charleston site, including more than 40 787-10 models — the largest Dreamliner variant that's built only in North Charleston.

The North Charleston operations are among Boeing's highest priorities, Zaback said — a far cry for property that was essentially swampland when the aerospace giant first eyed it for development.

"When Boeing sought to expand our operations a decade ago, we saw something special in South Carolina," Tim Keating, executive vice president of Boeing Government Operations, said during a 10th anniversary event. "And today, it is clear that we made the right choice."

Zaback was a part of the Dreamliner program from its start as a chief engineer and has played leading roles in the development of Boeing's 767 and 777 planes. The 32-year Boeing employee now splits his time between the North Charleston site and a second Dreamliner plant in Everett, Wash., responsible for the 787 program's current production and long-term strategy.

"The 787 is going to be a big part of our future for the next 30 or 40 years," he said. "A lot of the teammates who are working here now, their kids are going to be working here."

Boeing Groundbreaking (copy)

With the Dreamlifter as a backdrop, then-Sen. Jim DeMint addresses a crowd gathered for the groundbreaking of Boeing Co.'s new 787 Dreamliner assembly campus in North Charleston on Nov. 20, 2009. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

But the North Charleston operations "are growing in more ways than the 787," he said.

For example, the engine plant dubbed Propulsion South Carolina has added all of the 787 engineering to the work it still does for the 737 Max and 777X programs. New products are being added to the interior parts factory. And North Charleston has added Boeing Global Services — a group providing repair, maintenance and supply chain support to customers — to its list of offerings.

While Boeing's move to the East Coast has reshaped the aerospace giant's manufacturing footprint, it's also transformed the Charleston region's economy, which was still feeling the impact of the military's decision to close North Charleston's Navy base more than a decade earlier.

"Charleston's regional economy is in a profoundly different place than it was just 10 years ago," said Claire Gibbons, spokeswoman for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, which recruits global industries to the three-county region.

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"Boeing’s decision to locate and expand here landed our mid-size metro on the international stage practically overnight," Gibbons said, adding the community responded by adding advanced manufacturing and aerospace training programs — including the newly opened S.C. Aeronautical Training Center — to create a skilled workforce.

"From Seattle to California to Munich, Charleston is now recognized globally as a significant player in the aerospace industry, and a go-to location for aerospace suppliers," Gibbons said.

Today, Boeing's South Carolina workforce exceeds 6,400 employees and contractors, and the company's supply network includes more than 270 local businesses.

Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner (copy)

Boeing held the first test flight of the company's 787-10 Dreamliner on March 30, 2018. The model is built exclusively at the North Charleston campus. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

There have been a few bumps in Boeing's path this past decade. The 787 program was plagued by production delays early on and in 2013 all Dreamliners were grounded for about three months following a series of lithium-ion battery fires on planes that were in service.

More recently, the North Charleston plant has been under scrutiny for production mistakes resulting from what some workers say is a culture that values manufacturing speed over safety.

Zaback bristles at the notion that safety is being ignored, adding most of the missteps reported by the media occurred years ago.

"Those issues were way back in the past, the ones that were real, and they have been addressed," he said. "Those that were new, we addressed right away. I think it was serious at the time, but that's not a problem today. Our issues now we catch, and we're getting down to a very minimal amount that's just part of basic manufacturing."

Uresh Sheth, an analyst who tracks Dreamliner production on his All Things 787 website, said the North Charleston plant "continues to have workmanship issues" but is "making a comeback of sorts" with delivery totals appearing to be back on track.

The International Association of Machinists union has also tormented Boeing in North Charleston even before the plant opened. The union's West Coast leadership unsuccessfully tried to block Boeing from moving to South Carolina, claiming it was designed solely to avoid organized labor. Since then, the union has tried three times to organize workers at the site.

Most recently, the National Labor Relations Board overturned a vote by North Charleston flight-line workers to join the IAM — a ruling that's being appealed in federal court.

Boeing Paint Facility (copy)

Boeing's 360,000-square-foot paint hangar opened adjacent to the 787 campus in North Charleston on Dec. 15, 2016. The facility can paint two Dreamliners at a time. File/Staff

Zaback, who oversees a union-led shop in Everett, said the non-union North Charleston model has led to more innovation because people from different teams are allowed to work together rather than staying in their separate lanes.

"We can work with the teammates directly and we can have engineers come and work with mechanics on some area that's really hard — in a lot of our sites we can't do that," he said. "The more engaged a workforce is, the happier and more stable everyone is. That model will take us far beyond what anyone else can do."

Zaback said the Charleston community has welcomed Boeing — he often hears gratitude from residents when he wears his Boeing shirt in public — and the company makes it a priority to return the generosity. Boeing South Carolina has given more than $37 million to charitable and educational efforts since landing in North Charleston and the site's workers volunteer thousands of hours to community groups each year. 

"You can't be a great company unless you're great in the community, and this community has welcomed us with open arms," he said. "I absolutely love walking out and talking to people. It's a special place."

Reach David Wren at 843-937-5550 or on Twitter at @David_Wren_

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