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Editorial: S. Carolina Boeing plant offers some good lessons

Boeing Co. rolled the first 787 out of its South Carolina plant last week, a milestone for the company and the state, and a lesson for Washington.

In rolling out that plane for Air India, the plant in North Charleston became the first East Coast commercial airplane manufacturing plant, and one second in size only to Boeing’s Everett factory. Construction was completed six months ahead of schedule.

More remarkably, the plane emerged from the plant only about three years after tree-felling began on the 240-acre site.

Those are impressive achievements. The state and Boeing also marshaled a workforce composed of company workers and management, workers displaced from other aerospace programs like the space shuttle, and mostly homegrown rookies trained at a nearby community college. They still have a learning curve ahead of them.

Boeing subcontractors in the Charleston area early on botched the manufacturing of some 787 sub-assemblies, which contributed to the 3  1/2 year delay delivering the first 787. Fasteners were recently installed improperly on yet another plane, but eventually Boeing will overcome those startup snafus as the plant ramps up to an initial production goal of three planes per month. The Everett plant will make seven.

Boeing’s decision to build a plant in Charleston followed another costly confrontation with the International Association of Machinists, which got uglier when the union goaded the National Labor Relations Board into an investigation of the choice to build in a right-to-work state. That stupidity went away when company and union reached a peace that will assure the 737 MAX gets assembled in Renton.

The Machinists learned something from the Charleston decision, and rebounded. Has Washington? Could the state, local jurisdictions and educational institutions get a similar plant permitted, built, staffed and producing in three years?

Greater Spokane Incorporated and local officials are working to precertify large sites that could accommodate a Boeing-sized plant. The hope was the 737 MAX might be built here, but the effort has not lapsed despite the decision to stick with Renton. Robin Toth, GSI’s vice president for economic development, says a draft environmental checklist has already been prepared – the public comment period closes Thursday – with the goal an ability to get a plant the size of Charleston’s built and operating within a similar time frame.

Charleston raised the bar, she says. “The rest of us have to be ready to compete at that level.”

Spokane Community College has honed its aerospace courses by working with the 80-odd companies in the region in that business. In September, SCC received $5.8 million of a $20 million grant to the Air Washington Program for training a new generation of aerospace workers. GSI is trying to raise student awareness of opportunities in aerospace as early as middle school.

In September, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Officer Jim Albaugh will address GSI’s annual meeting. Perhaps he will tell the community how far it has come, or how far it has to go, before his or any other major aerospace company will land here.


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