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787 production’s a ‘snap’
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When machinists start the final stages of assembling the first 787 Dreamliner, the din of pounding rivet guns won’t echo through the factory as it does on production lines for Boeing Co.’s other jets.
Instead of hundreds of panels of aluminum, the 787’s major components are being built mostly or entirely of carbon-fiber composite materials that are essentially baked in giant pressure cookers, flown in from faraway factories, then fastened together.
In the past, workers at Boeing plants have stuffed the electrical wiring, hydraulic systems and other innards into planes as they were assembled here, but with the 787, suppliers scattered around the globe are doing that work.
“Basically … we’re snapping it together,” said Tom Wroblewski, president of the union representing Boeing production workers in the Seattle area. “This is a whole new way of assembling an aircraft.”
Boeing’s Dreamlifter, the 747 superfreighter it modified to transport large parts of the Dreamliner, made the last of four deliveries for the first 787 last week. The company will show them off today when it hosts a grand opening for the 787 factory line, right next to the 777 line in a plant north of Seattle.
At first, the Dreamliner assembly line will look much like those of other planes, because Boeing has pulled in extra workers to install wiring in the first few planes, said Mike Bair, head of the 787 program. The company flew in unfinished parts rather than risk falling behind schedule. Fewer workers eventually will be on the factory floor, because it won’t take as many people to join the huge prefabricated parts.
Boeing says everything has been running smoothly, even as some production issues arise. The horizontal stabilizer that will be part of the first plane’s tail arrived with dings on its surface, indicating it wasn’t handled properly during the shipping process. Temporary fasteners on some parts will have to be replaced because of an industrywide shortage of permanent ones.
The company expected some bumps in the road and has contingency plans to deal with them, spokeswoman Mary Hanson said.
If glitches become a big enough problem, Mr. Wroblewski said, machinists are eager for the chance to do more of the work themselves.
“We need to be ready and available to pick up that slack and show them we can do it better than the supplier, and our hope is then that we can draw that work back” to the Seattle area, Mr. Wroblewski said.
Boeing executives insist the company has ample experience managing outside suppliers that build parts for its other planes, and that it is confident the 787’s manufacturing network will be a success.
“All it takes is one part and you can’t build an airplane,” Mr. Bair said. “One bolt and you can be in trouble. So managing that is nothing new.”
Mr. Bair said it is unlikely that substantial amounts of work will be shifted back to the Seattle area.
“Clearly the plan is to make sure that all these partners will do what they have committed that they’re going to do,” he said.
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