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Originally published June 13, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 13, 2008 at 9:27 AM

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Boeing Dreamliner's front end gets finishing touches at Spirit AeroSystems

The latest 787 front section made for Boeing in Wichita will be shipped next week "fully stuffed," with 100 percent of its wires and systems installed, Spirit executives said on a tour Thursday.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

WICHITA, Kan. — Almost a year ago in Everett, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner No. 1 rolled out with an impressive exterior but completely empty inside.

At the sprawling Spirit AeroSystems plant here Thursday, the cockpit door inside the 42-foot-long front section of Dreamliner No. 4 opened to reveal a finished flight deck.

Though it's only the front of the plane, it seemed almost ready for takeoff.

Sure, the cockpit windows are still sheathed in brown paper. The two stylish pilot seats are wrapped in plastic, like furniture in a showroom. The screens on the instrument panel are covered for protection.

But everything is there. The dials and switches are installed. The twin steering columns are ready to roll. The pilots' coffee-cup holders are built into the sidewall.

"Great job on the front office," joked Bob Noble, the Boeing vice president who heads the 787 supply chain, as he stood at the cockpit door.

Behind the cockpit, the passenger cabin of the front fuselage is "fully stuffed" with 100 percent of its wires and systems installed, Spirit executives said.

And on the tip of the Dreamliner's nose, the protective cone was popped up to reveal the radar antenna already mounted behind it.

In the past year, 787 sections delivered unfinished to Everett led to a series of embarrassing schedule delays. Some airlines will wait 28 months longer than planned for their Dreamliners.

But here at top supplier Spirit, formerly Boeing Wichita, the supply chain is clearly recovering well — even better than at the two 787 plants in Charleston, S.C., that gave an upbeat media tour earlier this week.

Mechanics worked Thursday on a few final details, readying No. 4 for shipping to Everett in a week. Counting two ground-test airplanes that will never fly, this jet is actually the sixth Dreamliner to be built.

From this one forward, Spirit managers say, they will deliver their section of the Dreamliner virtually complete.

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To an airline passenger, of course, it wouldn't look complete. There are no passenger seats, no overhead bins, no plastic side walls.

Those features are cosmetic and often vary by airline. Boeing will install all that in Everett.

But Spirit will install the tracks for the seats, the racks that hold the bins and the frames to which the sidewalls will hook.

Terry George, Spirit's 787 director of operations, attributed the success here to the company's Boeing heritage, its familiarity with Boeing tools and processes, and the experience that managers here, including himself, gained in past stints in Everett.

"Boeing DNA"

"We had a lot of Boeing DNA," said George.

The only tasks left undone on No. 4, compared with the original build plan, are to turn the power on to test the electronic systems and to add a coat of paint, Noble said.

Forrest Urban, Spirit's senior director of parts management, said those jobs will be included by Dreamliner No. 16.

At the side of No. 4, mechanic Darrell Staggs examined a 3-D wiring diagram and printed a copy to take to where he was working around the wires.

Staggs, 44, worked at this site for 20 years when it was Boeing Wichita and stayed when it became Spirit three years ago.

Growing familiarity

"As the mechanics learn their job, they'll spend far less time on the computers," said operations director George. "Right now, as they learn things, they have to look it up on the computer, do a screen print and bring it on the airplane."

Lined up by the nose section of No. 4 were the same sections for Nos. 5, 6 and 7. No. 8 stood nearby ready to move into position for installation.

Elsewhere in the factory, the sections for planes up to No. 22 were in various stages of completion.

Yet the factory is remarkably quiet. There's no sense of hustle.

Engineers and support personnel work silently on computers around the aircraft sections. Small teams of mechanics install systems. But there's no cacophony of drilling and riveting, as there is in the buildings where Spirit makes the metal 737 fuselages.

The 787 program slowdown also accounts for some of the relaxed pace.

Because of the delays, Spirit has shut down operations in its "clean room" — the starting point where these large fuselage sections are formed with epoxy-infused carbon-fiber tape and baked to hardness.

The company doesn't need to produce any more new sections until about October. Until then, it will focus on completing installations of Dreamliners 4 through 22, planning to deliver one per month for the near term.

The production work force, at 500 last fall, has shrunk to about 200.

The engineering staff, at 330 last fall, is about 200.

Some 25 Spirit workers have been deployed to Everett to help with final assembly. The rest have been reassigned elsewhere at Spirit, reducing the overtime needed on programs such as Spirit's 737 work.

The main benefit of the slowdown, said Urban, has been to provide "breathing room" for Spirit's suppliers to catch up.

Spirit, like all the other 787 partners, had been doing a lot of extra out-of-sequence work because of parts shortages.

With Spirit's suppliers now on track, Urban believes that when Boeing is ready to ramp up again, things will go smoothly.

Even as Spirit views the prospect of getting the 787 flying and ramping up production, the company continues to grow in ambition.

Since it was split off from Boeing in 2005, Spirit has flourished.

It recently won the contract to build the center fuselage section of Airbus' A350, also a carbon/plastic composite plane and a competitor to both the 787 and the larger 777.

Spirit is erecting a plant in Kinston, N.C., to build the A350 fuselage panels, but will assemble them in Europe.

Ron Brunton, executive vice president and chief operating officer, said it isn't clear if Spirit will own that assembly plant.

Given that guarded response, it seems possible Spirit workers may end up doing assembly at an Airbus location.

The A350 program is a long way from reality. Spirit will face challenges with its undeveloped site in North Carolina similar to those Boeing dealt with in South Carolina.

The good news for Boeing — as evidenced by Dreamliner No. 4 — is that the worst of the 787 startup manufacturing problems appear to be behind them.

Noble said that Boeing's partners in Italy and Japan have made similar progress.

The wing for Dreamliner No. 4, made by Mitsubishi in Japan, is already in Everett.

"It was very complete," said Noble.

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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