On the rise Boeing S.C. confident with rate increase, 787-10 on the horizon

Boeing South Carolina workers put together the 787 Dreamliner midbody sections at the North Charleston plant.

Boeing South Carolina has been through this kind of thing before — the introduction of a new version of its popular 787 Dreamliner coupled with an increase in monthly production rates.

Beverly Wyse, vice president and general manager, is confident the transition will be easier this time around.

“We expect this to go through comparatively smoothly,” Wyse said last week, referring to Boeing’s production increase to 12 Dreamliners per month, just before the first 787-10 — also known as the Dash-10 — starts making its way through the final assembly process in North Charleston.

“We’re feeling very good about our rate increase,” Wyse said. “As always, there may be issues along the way so we include buffer in our schedules so that we are able to accommodate them. We’re monitoring and working closely with the supply chain as we go through that.”

The increase to a dozen monthly Dreamliners, from 10 now, will start this summer and will be split between the North Charleston campus and a second plant in Everett, Wash. The first 787-10 — a simple stretch of the 787-9 — is scheduled to hit final assembly in October. It will be built exclusively in North Charleston.

“The big advantage we’re going to have this year is the commonality between the Dash-10 and the Dash-9 is very, very high,” Wyse said, adding that the two models are more than 90 percent identical. “The difference in the build plan is minimal. It really is primarily length.”

The North Charleston plant was riddled with assembly issues when the last rate increase — to 10 per month in 2013 — hit just as the new 787-9 was making its way to the production floor.

Dreamliner fuselage components that come through North Charleston were being sent to Everett with major tasks still to be completed. West Coast employees complained that they had to fix what Boeing calls “traveled work,” such as missing wiring and hydraulics lines.

Back then, the problem was attributed to the company shedding too much of the skilled contract labor it had hired to get the North Charleston plant started four years earlier.

Wyse vows that won’t be the case this time.

“I feel very good about the staffing levels that we have and the training that they’ll be able to do prior to going into the rate increase,” she said. “We are bringing on some more contractors in every area, but it’s a very low percentage per area.”

The company also will move some of its current employees to new positions to help get ready for the increase.

According to Wyse, “only the paranoid survive.” That means a lot of extra training and practice runs whenever possible.

“We’ve gone through a very traditional look-ahead on our production rate increase, which involves things like making sure we’ve got training plans literally for every teammate and an amount of practice time before going into the rate increase,” she said.

Mike Bunker, director of operations at the North Charleston campus, said the company recently expanded its aft body production space to 830,000 square feet — from 460,000 square feet — to get ready for the rate increase and the Dash-10 work.

North Charleston makes all of the aft body sections for every Dreamliner model, including the earliest 787-8 version, while the plane’s other sections are made by suppliers overseas. The Dash-10 aft body is eight feet longer than the Dash-9 version.

New machinery is in place, including five “quadbots” that can drill 2,800 holes in an aft body section and fill every one with a fastener in 1½ days, compared to the five days it used to take.

“We have all of the capital in place for the ramp-up and all of the personnel is in place,” Bunker said. “We’re still doing a little cross-training. But we are ready for that production increase and then, later this year, we start building the Dash-10.”

The first test version of a Dash-10 aft body was built a couple of months ago,

“It went fantastic,” Bunker said, adding that the first real Dash-10 aft body will be built in the coming weeks.

By October, the first 787-10 should be in the first position on the final assembly line, said Michelle Bernson, final assembly director at the North Charleston campus.

Bernson said some of the interior parts that have been installed farther down the final assembly line, such as the seats, will be moved up in the process to help accommodate the rate increase. Otherwise, there will be few changes in final production as the North Charleston site will have a mix of Dash-8s, Dash-9s and Dash-10s on the floor at any given time.

“One of the biggest impacts is that we are shutting down some of the pedestrian aisle ways because the airplanes will be closer together” with the longer Dash-10, she said. “We won’t have as much space for tooling ... and we’ll have just one pedestrian aisle way. The airplanes will be closer together nose to tail, but still in the same positions and the same general layout.”

Production of the initial 787-10 should wrap up late this year, with testing scheduled for 2017 and the first delivery set for July 2018. The Dash-10 has logged 162 orders from nine customers worldwide, accounting for 14 percent of all Dreamliner orders. The Dash-9 has been the most popular model to date, with 546 orders.

While overall production will go to 12 Dreamliners per month, Wyse said that doesn’t necessarily mean North Charleston and Everett each will produce six planes every 30 days.

“We haven’t locked ourselves into exactly what the production flows will be,” she said. Introduction of the 787-10, for example, will mean a longer flow time in North Charleston, in which case Everett will pick up the production slack.

“If North Charleston has the capacity, we might add more here,” she said. “We don’t want to lock ourselves in, but we’re going to roughly split the capacity between the two sites to best suit our needs and our customers’ needs.”

Gone are the days, however, when Everett has to clean up the work sent from North Charleston, Wyse said.

“We are not seeing that, absolutely not,” she said. “When we started off and the capability between the two sites was so different, absolutely if we had work that required more difficult expertise we would have been more likely to bring people from Everett. But you do not see that today.

“I think we are in this optimum spot of a little bit of healthy competition” between the two sides, she said. “There is no space between us in terms of the processes that we’re using and the learning from each other.”

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