Boeing provides first look inside 787
The Everett final-assembly line of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner buzzed Monday with energy and activity as mechanics hustled to complete four...
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
The Everett final-assembly line of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner buzzed Monday with energy and activity as mechanics hustled to complete four airplanes lined up nose-to-tail.
It's a busier beehive than Boeing planned for. The sections of the first Dreamliners arrived lacking much of the wiring and systems that the company's major partners were supposed to install, and Boeing mechanics have been painstakingly hand-building these planes.
But Pat Shanahan, head of the program, said Monday on the first public tour of the production line that the plane now at the back of the assembly bay marks a turning point. That 787, Dreamliner 3, will be built almost the way Boeing originally planned.
The first Dreamliners, which arrived as virtual shells, now have dedicated crews working seven days a week to finish them.
But No. 3 is already much more finished and doesn't need that special attention.
The entire front fuselage section, built by Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kan., arrived already wired. Inside the cockpit of the tan-colored, composite-plastic plane, the steering columns are in place and the instrument panels lack only the glass display screens.
There's still work to be caught up on. The fuselage is largely empty from the wings back. Insulation blankets cover the sidewalls, where the wiring that should be visible at this stage of assembly is missing.
But when this plane moves to the next position, the crew working on it now will stay at their station and turn their attention to the next plane to arrive in Everett.
"The production system starts here," Shanahan said, and the tangible progress is producing a new upbeat mood on the factory floor.
"If you came here six months ago — long faces, real frustration. Now, they are really motivated. They can see light," Shanahan said. "These guys are pumped."
Monday, the four 787s lined up in the assembly bay were: Dreamliner No. 1; then the fatigue test plane, which will never fly — instead being subjected to loads simulating multiple takeoffs and landings equivalent to many airplane lifetimes; then Dreamliners 2 and 3.
The look of the factory will begin to change when the next plane comes in, and the progress will be more dramatically visible, said Shanahan.
Right now, the wings of all four airplanes are enveloped in basic scaffolding of the type you might see on a construction site. That's because the wings came from Japan so unfinished that they required much systems installation. The scaffolding gives the mechanics access all over the wings.
But Shanahan said he anticipates the next set of wings from Mitsubishi Heavy Industry, for Dreamliner No. 4, "may come in complete" with all required wiring and fasteners. He said the mechanics won't need the scaffolding, only cherry-picker-type lifts to reach their work points.
That shift will remove much visual clutter and open up the airplane assembly. The support staff who sit with laptops at the many tables along the edges of the line will have a clearer view of the planes, as will mechanics breaking for lunch at the Dreamliner Diner cafe that overlooks the line from the second floor.
"Number 4 will be the best airplane yet," Shanahan said. Inside, the whole cabin will arrive with the wiring installed along the entire interior fuselage. "It's [already] done," he said.
Though journalists didn't get inside the first three Dreamliners on the line, each was a hive of activity. Through the door of Dreamliner No. 1, one could glimpse a crew of mechanics busy installing components in the rear of the cabin.
Shanahan said this first airplane, due to fly this fall, is set to have its power switched on next month.
"Power-On" is a significant milestone. It allows Boeing to test everything the mechanics have installed, from wiring to hydraulic and pneumatic tubing.
Asked about problematic areas in the systems, Shanahan said "two guys are on my list." He identified these as the suppliers of the airplane's power system (Hamilton Sundstrand of Windsor Locks, Conn.) and of its brake control monitoring system (a Burbank, Calif. unit of Crane Aerospace, a subtier supplier to General Electric).
Shanahan said he has promised Hamilton Sundstrand President David Hess a fabulous meal if Hess delivers everything he needs next month.
Shanahan also set out his optimistic expectations for a rigorous eight-month flight-test program, and a concurrent process for certification of the airplane by the Federal Aviation Administration.
He said that despite the embarrassing delays that mean some airlines will have to wait two years longer than anticipated for delivery of their Dreamliners, Boeing can now meet its newly revised schedule. The first plane is to fly by the end of the year and the first delivery should happen in the third quarter next year.
Shanahan said challenges can and will erupt unexpectedly: "This is a program where every half-hour somebody runs in my office and throws a grenade."
But he expressed cool confidence that each time this happens, "we'll dispatch the right people and resolve those issues."
Shanahan said that despite the problems that have arisen, Boeing will "unquestionably" use the same manufacturing process again — outsourcing the work to partners and making the plane in large single-piece sections rather than many panels joined together.
Standing alongside No. 3, he said Boeing has to drill about 10,000 holes to assemble the 787 fuselage, compared with a million holes on the 747 jumbo jet.
Elsewhere in the largest building in the world, Boeing has temporarily assembled an enormous fixture — 1.5 million pounds of structural steel — to hold yet another Dreamliner, the static test airplane.
Because of the new carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic material used to build the plane, it must undergo an extensive structural test program, more rigorous than usual.
The static test plane is one of two that will never fly. It will sit in this giant rig through next spring and be bent, sheared and pressured by forces 1.5 times greater than the limit of those it will ever encounter in flight.
Randy Harley, vice president of engineering and technology on the 787, said tests will deflect the wingtips at least 26 feet above their resting position.
Boeing still has not decided whether or not to bend the wings until they break — a dramatic moment on all previous airplane programs, and one usually witnessed by a large part of the work force.
Boeing will only do so this time if engineers believe they need to learn more about the structure under greater loads. But due to lack of space in the 747 bay, if they do decide to go that far, Boeing won't bring in bleachers for the show. All but a handful of test controllers will watch on video.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or email@example.com
An article published May 22, 2008, was corrected May 23, 2008. Due to incorrect information supplied by Boeing, a previous version erroneously identified Messier-Bugatti of France, which supplies the jet's brakes, as having problems meeting its commitments. Boeing said the problematic supplier is not Messier-Bugatti, but a subtier contractor to General Electric that makes the brake control monitoring system. This article published May 22, 2008, was corrected June 11, 2008. The secondary photo of Boeing's Dreamliner 787 factory is of Dreamliner No.1. The previous version was incorrect, depicting it as Dreamliner No 3.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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