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Originally published February 3, 2014 at 6:57 PM | Page modified February 3, 2014 at 7:04 PM

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787 assembly problems in Charleston drag on Everett

Boeing is struggling to complete 787 fuselage sections in South Carolina since a production rate increase, and sections are arriving in Everett more unfinished and problematic than before.


Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Since late last year, Boeing 787 Dreamliner fuselage sections from North Charleston, S.C., have arrived at the Everett final assembly line seriously incomplete with wiring and hydraulics lines missing, according to multiple sources in the factory.

The poorly done work out of Charleston threatens to undermine the company’s plans to deliver 10 Dreamliners a month and fulfill the much-delayed jet program’s original promise.

“It’s snowballing. The planes are getting worse out of Charleston,” said one senior Everett employee who oversees the production status of the airplanes.

Another Everett employee, a quality inspector, said the work out of Charleston had been very slowly getting better until late last year, but that “now the curve has gone the other way, big time.”

An engineer in Boeing’s South Carolina complex said mechanics there have been “falling farther and farther behind” since last fall, but management has insisted on sending unfinished planes to Everett to keep to the planned rate.

In a written response to inquiries, Boeing said its plan of rolling 10 Dreamliners per month off its assembly lines is on track.

“While we have some challenges to address, we see no risk to the program,” Boeing said. “Right now, Boeing South Carolina is making its rate commitments.”

However, with the planes rolling out of the assembly bays needing more fixes out on the flight line, it could be a while before Boeing actually delivers 10 jets per month.

Trouble on assembly line

The plane now at the back of the Everett line —the fourth of the new, larger 787-9 models, being built for Air New Zealand — is “a freaking nightmare ... in horrible shape,” the senior Everett employee said.

Coaxial and fiber optic cables used for radio communications and data transmission are missing from the mid-fuselage section, which is much less complete than the corresponding sections on the two prior 787-9 models that came down the line.

Ahead of the Air New Zealand jet on the line, work on a 787-8 for Polish airline LOT was delayed many hours as Everett employees tried to discover why an electrical system wasn’t working.

It turned out that six wires in a bundle of about 50 in the mid-fuselage were not connected, even though the paperwork from Charleston showed the work complete. The loose connectors were still hanging with zip-tied plastic bags around them.

Although a Charleston quality inspector signed off on the mechanic’s work, “it was not done,” the senior Everett employee said. “Fifty connectors were supposedly hooked up and six were not even taken out of the bags.”

And ahead of the LOT plane on the line, on a 787-8 destined for Aeromexico, an electronics unit was damaged and had to be replaced after installation in Everett because Charleston mechanics had inadvertently left the plastic caps on some connectors — an issue that on several previous occasions had been reported back to South Carolina.

The Boeing employees cited in this story — whether in Everett or North Charleston — cannot be named because they spoke without company authorization.

The company declined to respond to any of the specific problems they cited. Instead it offered a general assurance that the “challenges” in Charleston are temporary and that management “has a solid plan to continue to implement improvements as we go forward.”

Bigger bonuses in Charleston

In a quarterly earnings teleconference with Wall Street analysts and the press last week, Boeing chief financial officer Greg Smith conceded that the Charleston workforce has recently “experienced a higher number of jobs behind schedule in the mid-body section,” yet he insisted they are “doing a great job.”

Also last week, Boeing awarded a larger percentage annual bonus to the Charleston workforce than to the Puget Sound area workforce.

Based on company performance, most engineers here will receive 16 extra days’ pay, or a 6.15 percent bonus, and the local Machinists will get a 4 percent bonus.

In Charleston, a separate bonus calculation will give the workforce there 18 days’ extra pay, or a 6.9 percent bonus.

Yet an Everett systems engineer said it’s the Machinists on the final assembly line who deserve credit for keeping 787 production rolling.

“The only people who get these airplanes delivered are the hourly people in Everett,” said the systems engineer, who is not a Machinist. “They are finding a way.”

They must troubleshoot the airplane systems when they find issues, then finish work left incomplete in Charleston before doing the jobs they are supposed to be doing.

The quality inspector insisted, as did the other Everett workers, that this re-work does not imply a safety concern.

“The quality will be there at the end, no matter what, because we test it,” the inspector said. “We make sure it’s done right and is safe.”

The problem is the time and money needed to do the re-work, he said.

Several workers said that one plane on the line today has nearly 2,000 incomplete jobs -- including wiring and hydraulics -- that were supposed to have been done in the Charleston plant but were not.

Root causes

The Boeing South Carolina engineer conceded the problems there have been growing for months and cited three contributing factors.

First, beginning last spring, Boeing let go most of Charleston’s temporary contract hires — experienced aviation workers hired from all over the U.S. to get the program up and running, many of them working as quality inspectors.

That left a serious skill shortage when Boeing both introduced a new Dreamliner model, the 787-9, which has a larger mid-body fuselage than the initial 787-8, and then in the fall increased the production rate from 7 to 10 jets per month.

“When they got rid of the contractors, it left a big hole,” said the Charleston engineer. “You cannot lose that level of expertise plus increase rate at the same time and expect things to be normal.”

“The guys on the floor were overwhelmed with what they were trying to accomplish on a given day,” he added.

Boeing’s written response to questions backs up the Charleston engineer’s analysis of the cause of the problems.

“The 787 production system is ramping up to historically high rates for a wide-body program and introducing a second family member, the 787-9. It’s not unexpected that this would cause a temporary surge in work,” Boeing said.

After years of Dreamliner delays and a big backlog of orders to fill, Boeing’s plan is to stabilize the production rate at 10 jets per month, before moving up to 12 per month in 2016, and then 14 per month by the end of the decade.

Hiring more contractors

The company statement points out that, because the Charleston plant is non-union, it has a “unique capability to be flexible to quickly hire contract labor” to tackle a buildup of work.

Indeed, rehiring some of the skilled contract workers let go last year is an essential part of Boeing’s plan to fix Charleston’s problems.

The Charleston engineer said management is scrambling to find 300 to 400 contractors in addition to its pipeline of local direct hires.

He said hiring temporary contract labor from across the nation is necessary because there just isn’t enough skilled talent available locally in South Carolina.

Building the largely carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic 787 is much harder than the “snap-together” airplane concept Boeing originally envisaged, he said.

“It’s just as hand-built as any legacy airplane,” he said. “A plastic airplane is not a plastic model. It’s a real airplane.”

In Everett, though new hires may come in with few aviation skills, they work alongside veterans with 30 or 40 years experience and in the process absorb the meticulous work culture needed to build airplanes.

“Once we’ve been at it 97 years like you guys (in the Northwest), we’ll have a ready workforce,” said the Charleston engineer. “But now, realistically, we have to look outside for aviation experience.”

Some of the issues in Charleston are not the fault of the workforce there.

The Everett systems engineer said that many of the written planning instructions used by the mechanics there were produced in haste in the early days of the program and are riddled with errors and omissions.

(The Charleston engineer said that to compensate for the lack of aviation “tribal knowledge” among the workers in South Carolina, Boeing is re-writing those instructions to make them simpler to understand.)

In addition, said the Everett systems engineer, the fundamental decision to build the 787 in complete sections in far-flung locations has resulted in unintended complications.

For example, all the doors on the fuselage sections that arrive from Charleston have to be re-rigged in Everett.

That means the doors — finely tuned marvels of engineering designed to withstand high pressure in flight — must be mechanically re-adjusted to ensure a snug fit and smooth operation. It’s a job that takes two skilled mechanics a day or more.

Those adjustments, first made in Charleston, have to be re-done in Everett because of small changes in the shape of the plastic fuselage sections in the assembly process.

The sections flex slightly in transit from South Carolina to Everett, flex differently when fitted together with other sections, and flex along different lines again when the landing gear is installed and the plane’s weight rests on the gear for the first time.

The Everett systems engineer said the 787 program is a long way from running smoothly: “Every airplane is a struggle.”

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



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