Boeing shows off faster 787 assembly line

EVERETT — As battery woes kept the 787 grounded, Boeing workers picked up the pace, enabling the company to roll out this week the first Dreamliner built at the rate of seven aircraft per month.

The 787 production milestone, announced Thursday, came less than three weeks after the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the Dreamliner to return to commercial service after a three-month grounding. The Dreamliner rolled out at the increased pace is the 100th built in Everett and still will need to be retrofitted with the new battery system Boeing devised to get the FAA’s approval to resume passenger flights.

On the factory floor in Everett, though, Boeing managers and workers remain focused on speeding production. There’s still more to do if they plan to meet the jet maker’s goal of assembling 10 787s monthly by the end of 2013. Those production rates reflect the combined output of the Everett and North Charleston, S.C., factories.

Increasing production to seven 787s per month from five wasn’t the result of major changes to the assembly process, said Gary McCulley, director of 787 final assembly.

“It was mostly about talking to employees and figuring out how to do more today than they did the day before,” McCulley said.

Boeing has relied heavily on the men and women who build the 787 to come up with ways to make the process faster. Employee teams have devised tools that make the installation of aircraft floors easier, for example. They’ve come up with processes that protect aircraft seats and bins during installation, McCulley said.

Dreamliner mechanics Brett Church and Socrates Chan explained one process they helped refine: installing fasteners in 787 wings. Working with supervisors and engineers, they replaced four tools with one.

“It takes seconds to do rather than hours,” Church said.

Compared to a year ago, 787 workers in Everett are more experienced, said Jeffrey Klemann, vice president of 787 final assembly. Since last summer, Boeing suppliers are sending mostly completed sections. That means the 787 assembly work has become more nominal, with mechanics performing the same tasks plane by plane rather than problem-solving incomplete work coming from suppliers.

To reach a pace of 10 jets monthly, Boeing is revising the work performed in each of the four major assembly positions on the 787 production floor. The company also will make changes in tooling and rearrange floor space to accommodate more aircraft parts flowing through the factory.

For instance, Boeing is doing away with the Mother of All Tools Tower, or MOATT, a structure used in the first assembly position where fuselage sections are joined and the 787’s wings are installed. But Boeing’s philosophy about big tools like MOATT has changed since final assembly of the first 787 began in 2007.

“We consider the big tools as monuments, which we want to get rid of,” McCulley said.

A smaller, more-mobile tool will take MOATT’s place.

Engines are being hung in the second assembly position rather than the third; more jet interiors are being installed in the third position, rather than the fourth, McCulley said. That’s allowing Boeing to use the fourth and final spot solely for testing.

As Boeing strives to reach 10 aircraft monthly, the company also is introducing a longer version of the Dreamliner, the 787-9, to final assembly. Two sections for the first 787-9, the vertical fin and the horizontal stabilizer, have arrived in Everett. Klemann and McCulley say the 787-9 can be built in either the 787 production bay or a surge-line area, a section of the factory Boeing created for extra capacity as the company’s North Charleston final assembly line was started up.

Klemann has confidence in the ability to get to 10 monthly so long as the Dreamliner supply chain can continue to keep pace. Boeing relies on suppliers around the world to build major sections — wings, the tail and fuselage — and ship those assemblies to 787 final assembly lines in Everett and South Carolina.

Boeing’s 787 workers have “proven they can really build this airplane,” Klemann said.

Michelle Dunlop: 425-339-3454; mdunlop@heraldnet.com.

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