dreamliner plant.jpg (copy)

There could be fewer inspections along the 787 Dreamliner production line in North Charleston under Boeing Co.'s plan to use smart tools and automation to replace visual quality checks. Grace Beahm Alford/Staff/File

A labor union that represents West Coast Boeing Co. workers wants its supporters in Congress to intervene in the aerospace giant's plan to eliminate thousands of hands-on inspections throughout its production lines, including in North Charleston.

The International Association of Machinists hopes those legislators can arrange a meeting with Federal Aviation Administration to address safety concerns over Boeing's plan to rely on "smart machines" and automation — rather than humans — to catch defects and mistakes.

The union doesn't represent quality assurance inspectors at Boeing's North Charleston campus, but production of the 787 Dreamliner off International Boulevard is being affected by the company-wide plan.

The IAM called the change "short-sighted" in a newsletter to members, adding the elimination of inspections along the assembly line will mean more work in the end as human inspectors find problems late in the process that could have been caught earlier.

"Removing inspections and discovering defects further down line is a bad decision that will cause an abundance of out-of-sequence work, more damage to the airplane, additional injuries to our members, more work at the end of the manufacturing process and the risk of late deliveries," the union said.

Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran

Boeing executive Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran said the planemaker is "on the right path" in changing up its inspection protocols. Provided/Boeing Co.

Boeing says it expected push back, but believes its "Quality Transformation" program will lead to safer airplanes.

"This is a shift in thinking," Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran, Boeing's vice president of quality, told The Seattle Times. "It will take some time, but we believe it will make our quality better. … The initial outcomes are very reassuring that we are on the right path."

When the plan is fully implemented, inspectors who did quality checks 100% of the time will sample 1-in-100 tasks, or fewer, the newspaper reported.

The IAM said Boeing plans to eliminate 451 union-represented inspectors this year and a similar number in 2020. That would lower the number of West Coast inspectors by about a third. Boeing, however, says inspectors will be given other duties.

It isn't clear what impact the plan will have on staffing in North Charleston.

An example of how the new technology works is a "smart wrench" used to tighten nuts in hydraulic lines on Boeing's 737 and 777 programs. It will eventually be used on the 787 assembly line in North Charleston.

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The Seattle Times reported the digital wrench signals when the correct torque is being applied to a nut and automatically sends the data to a computer system. The high-tech tool eliminates the need for mechanics to mark each nut, the paper reported, because it is programmed to track all of the operations in a pre-determined sequence.

The IAM is limited in what actions it can take because Boeing is eliminating inspections rather than placing those responsibilities on other employees who are covered under collective bargaining agreements.

There also is no contractual provision requiring any specific inspections during the production process.

The union is gathering data from members in the hopes of building a case with the FAA that elimination of human inspections is a safety hazard that should not be allowed.

"We will continue to encourage Boeing to retain and add inspection processes, as well as pursue a meeting with the FAA to present examples members have provided," the IAM said.

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