Details were fuzzy at the time, but the extra investment and jobs Boeing Co. promised this spring for South Carolina are starting to come into sharp focus.
The aerospace giant is ramping up production of its 787 Dreamliner by 20 percent within three years and then to 40 percent by 2020 as two longer versions of the lightweight passenger jet join the lineup, it was announced Wednesday.
The company assembles the plane in North Charleston and Everett, Wash. The big jump in production will put extra demands on both sites, and it likely would require more investment and more workers.
Boeing’s previously stated goal had been to roll out 10 Dreamliners a month by the end of this year. CEO Jim McNerney revised the figure higher on his latest quarterly call with Wall Street analysts Tuesday, ending months of speculation about the long-expected move.
Boeing said it’s accelerating its 787 assembly line to turn out 12 Dreamliners a month starting in 2016 and 14 a month “before the end of the decade.” It cited “continued strong demand for the 787 family of airplanes.”
“Overall commercial aviation remains a very attractive near- and long-term growth market, and our strategies have positioned us for a significant and sustained growth in the years ahead,” McNerney said.
Boeing expects to deliver up to 645 commercial planes in 2013, including at least 60 Dreamliners.
The 787 is a long-range, fuel-efficient plane made largely from lightweight composite materials. The aircraft has reshaped the Charleston economy since Boeing decided four years ago to start filling a third of the mounting orders for the jet from a new final assembly factory in South Carolina. With roughly 6,100 local workers, the company is now the largest private-sector employer in the Charleston region.
Despite manufacturing delays and other hiccups, the 787 has always been a hot commodity. Boeing has sold 131 Dreamliners this year, even after high-profile battery problems grounded them for about two months. Deliveries resumed in May.
Boeing is still working to fix the reliability of the glitch-prone plane. Most recently, a large underbelly panel fell from an Air India Dreamliner as it was landing.
McNerney said the 787’s “dispatch reliability” — or flight-readiness average — was at 97 percent for the jets that are in service. He stressed that the figure needs to be higher.
“We’re not pleased yet,” he said.
Boeing is turning up production as it seeks to plow through a backlog of 890 Dreamliner orders. Most of are for the standard 787-8, but the company also is selling an extended model, the 787-9. The company also said Tuesday that it already has taken 90 “firm” orders for the 787-10, the longest version launched this past summer.
Boeing is already gearing up to work at a higher tempo in North Charleston.
Greg Smith, finance chief, said the company is reconfiguring the “entire flow” at its North Charleston factory that makes the aft-fuselage sections of the 787. The purpose is to “get to these higher rates in a much more efficient manner,” Smith said Tuesday.
Details about the changes at the local plant were not immediately available.
In April, Boeing agreed to invest another $1.1 billion and create 2,000 more jobs in South Carolina in exchange for $120 million in state bond money that can be used to offset certain costs of a largely undefined “phase two” expansion.
Boeing observer Michel Merluzeau, managing partner at Kirkland, Wash.-based consultant G2 Solutions, said that commitment “absolutely” is linked to the stepped-up 787 production rate.
Boeing also is acquiring more property around its main campus from the Charleston County Aviation Authority. That sale was delayed by the 16-day partial shutdown of the federal government, which has to approve the transaction. Paul Campbell, airports director, said he now expects the deal to close in the next 30 to 35 days.
“That’s good for everybody,” Campbell said Wednesday. “Then Boeing can start doing land preparation for the next phase.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.