South Carolina Boeing plant’s turn to shine

Facility debuts its first complete 787 Dreamliner

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photoBoeing workers gather around the new 787 at the company’s assembly plant Friday in North Charleston, S.C.

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NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The first 787 Dreamliner assembled here waited Friday morning to roll out into the hot southern sunshine, “Made with pride in South Carolina” stenciled on its forward fuselage.

It’s a step that moves this new Boeing manufacturing site out of the shadow of Washington state.

Boeing South Carolina, which already employs around 6,000 people, has until now built 787 rear fuselages and mid-fuselages, then shipped those massive sections by air to Everett for final assembly.

As of Friday, it can boast that it also assembles complete airplanes, one of just three elite widebody jet assembly sites in the world: Everett, Wash.; Toulouse, France; and now North Charleston, S.C.

And unlike Everett, Boeing South Carolina does the entire sequence of plane-making, from soup to nuts.

Here, resin-soaked carbon fiber tape is pulled out of cold storage, wound into barrel-shaped fuselage sections, and baked to hardness. And in a new 1.2 million-square-foot final assembly site, all the various pieces of the airplane are joined and integrated, its systems installed and tested, until it’s ready to fly.

“This is the only site in the world that can say we go from freezer all the way to flight,” said Matt Borland, director of 787 aft-fuselage assembly.

At the end of the line, Dreamliner No. 46, the first Boeing-designed commercial jet ever built outside Washington’s Puget Sound region, sat ready for its moment in the sun, smoke from a smoke machine to be used in the rollout ceremony already swirling around it.

Certainly, Washington state remains the center of gravity of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. It boasts 83,000 Boeing employees, including all the commercial airplane engineers who design the jets. The Everett widebody jet plant — home to the 787 design team and the first 787 assembly line — alone has more than 33,000 workers.

Yet clearly Boeing South Carolina is now a significant, high-tech part of Boeing’s commercial jet operations, one focused entirely on making and assembling its newest jet made from carbon-fiber-reinforced composite plastic.

Boeing showed off the gleaming East Coast manufacturing complex to the media Friday morning, in advance of the afternoon rollout.

Jack Jones, vice president of Boeing South Carolina, marveled at the short timeline from knocking down trees in January 2010 to the rollout.

“From the time we went to dirt to the aircraft that’s going to roll out today — two-and-a-half years. That’s phenomenal,” Jones said Friday morning.

Marco Cavazzoni, general manager of the final assembly center, said construction of the building, at a cost of $750 million, provided jobs for 10,000 construction workers and came in seven months ahead of schedule.

The cavernous assembly bay, where four Air India 787s are currently under assembly, is a 480-foot-wide open space without interrupting columns, much wider than the one in Everett.

The assembly line is designed from scratch to incorporate changes that make it more efficient than the one in Everett.

And the sense of space is enormous. Clearly there is room here to grow and to pump out many more 787s than the current plan of three per month by 2014.

“I have what I consider the best new team and new site in the history of commercial aviation,” said Cavazzoni.

Cavazzoni said just four 787s will be delivered from here this year, as the team ramps up carefully to the three-per-month rate.

All four of this year’s jets will go to Air India. It’s a convenient coincidence that South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is of Indian parentage.

Less than three years ago, this site had just two distinct manufacturing buildings, one fabricating the aft fuselage of every 787, the other assembling the long mid-body of the airplane’s fuselage.

Now, those buildings are dwarfed by the extensions Boeing has added: the state-of-the-art final assembly building and a big jet delivery center and airplane parking ramp, for a total of 2.5 million square feet.

The show-off tour and the rollout are a triumph for South Carolina, which has faced numerous setbacks before reaching this point.

In 2011, the National Labor Relations Board questioned the legal standing of the site’s new final assembly line when it charged Boeing with selecting South Carolina over Washington in retaliation against the Machinists union for past strikes.

That legal specter evaporated last year when the International Association of Machinists union did a deal with the company to secure the 737 MAX for Renton, Wash., and dropped its objections to the Dreamliner production line here.

Before that, in 2006 through 2009, the aft fuselage plant initially operated by Vought of Dallas, and the mid-body assembly plant jointly operated by Vought and Alenia of Italy, were bottlenecks choking the Dreamliner supply lines.

Burdened with parts shortages and an inexperienced workforce, South Carolina couldn’t complete the aircraft sections it was assigned to deliver.

In stages, Boeing had to take full control, first buying out Vought, then Alenia.

Though those problems have eased, glitches persist.

In February, Boeing revealed that workers building the aft fuselage here had incorrectly installed shims — gap-filling spacers — between the fuselage skin and structural fittings that are fastened to the skin, causing delamination of the composite material.

Aft fuselage director Borland showed reporters an up-close look at the problem area. He said the workers in his plant had been installing gap-filling pieces called shims in a certain way that left unseen gaps in between two inside fastener rows.

But Borland said the issue is now completely solved and the shimming process adjusted.

Willy Geary, who is in charge of the mid-fuselage assembly center, said his site was once “the No. 1 problem on the program.”

“We are no longer,” he said. “It’s all behind us.”

He said the latest mid-fuselage section, for Dreamliner No. 67, was slated to fly to Everett Friday with just five jobs incomplete, out of 4,000.

And in the final assembly building, Cavazzoni said, “we’re fortunate enough to be ahead of plan.”

Jones said the plane rolling out Friday has less than 100 jobs incomplete, a very small number.

In comparison, when Boeing rolled out the very first Dreamliner in 2007 in Everett, the plane was a shell with a few fake surfaces painted to look real. That plane didn’t fly until two-and-a-half years after rollout.

Jones said Air India’s South Carolina 787 will fly in three to four weeks and will be delivered by the end of June.

The excitement among the workers here is palpable, and it’s equally obvious among local South Carolina officials.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, in an interview on the eve of the rollout, said Boeing will raise the whole economic level of his city and will apply the mark of a winner.

“It’s not just the jobs that are coming with Boeing. It’s the excitement it creates in the community,” said Summey. “Things are looking up for us. Things are looking good. ... If Boeing is successful, we’re successful.”

State representative Harry “Chip” Limehouse, who is also chairman of the area’s airport authority, said South Carolina is leaving behind an economy that just 30 or 40 years ago was based on agriculture and textiles.

“We were a small rural state, not a wealthy, powerful state,” said Limehouse. “We’re moving in the direction to be one of the top states in the country.”