February 5, 2014 in Business

Assembly of Boeing Dreamliner bogs down in Charleston, S.C., sources say

Dominic Gates Seattle Times
 

SEATTLE – 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 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.”

But 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.

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 report – 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.”

In a quarterly earnings teleconference with Wall Street analysts and the media 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.

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.

The Boeing South Carolina engineer conceded the problems there have been growing for months. One contributing factor cited was that 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 seven to 10 jets per month.

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

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