By Michelle Dunlop / Herald Writer
FREDERICKSON – Imagine if you could simplify all the difficult tasks of your job.
That’s what workers at the Boeing Co.’s Frederickson site did when they devised the vertical tail fin for the company’s 787 Dreamliner.
“We designed out all of the cost and work that we don’t need to do,” said Randy Taylor, engineering leader for Boeing’s Composite Manufacturing Center.
The team in Frederickson, located south of Puyallup in Pierce County, had plenty of experience building tail fins made mostly of composite materials. They’ve been producing carbon fiber vertical fins for Boeing’s 777 jet program for the last 15 years. So when the internal division won the contract to provide the 787’s tail fin, workers knew how to make production more efficient.
“This team built (the 787 fin) from the ground up,” said Deborah Dustman, spokeswoman for the center, during a tour of the facility.
Boeing rolled out the first completed tail fin Wednesday. The second and third pieces already are well into production and will follow the first up to Everett, where final assembly of the 787 will take place. Boeing intends to deliver the first 787 in 2008 and has 490 Dreamliners on order.
The initial step in producing either a 777 or a 787 tail fin begins in much the same fashion, with rolls and rolls of carbon fiber-based tape. The composite material comes to the Frederickson site from local supplier Toray Industries. Center employees pull vacuum-bagged rolls of the high strength fiber and resin layers from freezers. Because the material hardens with heat, each batch has a time window in which it can be used, Taylor said.
Machines, which can be programmed for either plane, layer the composite material for the plane’s skin, which is then baked in large ovens called autoclaves. The process takes between 20 and 30 hours, Taylor said.
Once set, composites provide a strong, tough structure that’s lighter than metals. Boeing has upped its total use of composites on the 787 to roughly 50 percent, compared with only 12 percent in the 777. The lighter material makes the Dreamliner more fuel-efficient than jets its size. Since plastic doesn’t corrode the way metals do, Boeing officials say the Dreamliner will save airlines maintenance time and cost.
The 787 vertical fin is about 15 percent smaller than the 777’s, but that’s not the reason why it takes significantly less space and time to assemble, Taylor said. When designing the 787’s vertical fin, the composite center’s crew eliminated the need for much of the specialized tooling needed for the 777 fin. Workers no longer need heavy tooling to line up the fin’s pieces. And most metal components come pre-drilled from Boeing’s chain of global suppliers.
“It’s cleaner and easier,” Taylor said. “It’s leaner.”
For the 777’s fin, workers have to machine down the mating edge of the fin that rests on the plane after the fin essentially is complete, Taylor said. The advancements made on the 787 allowed the center to eliminate that step altogether.
By getting rid of most of the tooling, assembly workers at the center can work on the fin as it lies on its side, rather than standing it straight up as is done with the 777 fin. The 787 fin’s position can be adjusted, making it more ergonomic for individuals.
The center’s design team may have refined all of the processes in building a mostly composite structure, but that hasn’t eliminated composites skeptics altogether. Boeing’s Dustman finds this confusing considering the 777’s composite fin has been flying around for the past 13 years.
‘This is proven technology over years and years,” she said.