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After Record Ramp-Up, Boeing Fine-Tunes 787 Production

 - June 11, 2015, 8:15 AM
Boeing expects the main 787 assembly line in Everett, Washington, to produce seven airplanes a month after it closes the surge line later this year.

Despite all their well-publicized problems, the two assembly plants that churn out Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner have managed to accelerate production faster than any other widebody program in history. Now building ten 787s per month, Boeing has already put in place all the factory equipment it needs to increase rates to 12 per month next year, reported 787 vice president and general manager Larry Loftis. Plans call for an increase in rate at the plant in Charleston, South Carolina, to increase from three to five, while, in Everett, Washington, the company consolidates the production of seven airplanes into a single line.

Just last month, Boeing announced it would close the so-called surge line in Everett, established in 2011 to “de-risk” production rate increases and introduction of the 787-9, said Loftis. By October the company expects to start assembly of the last 787 scheduled to roll down the surge line, deliver the airplane by the end of the year and begin to convert the space into a production line for early copies of the 777X. In the meantime, Boeing will need to transfer three 787s from the surge line, resulting in a rate of seven per month at the main line in Everett by the end of the year.

“I think it’s a strong testament to the production health and maturity, both at Everett and at Charleston, and it allows Charleston to accelerate the rate increase to get to 12 a little bit earlier,” said Loftis. “So the timing is really good for us because it allows us to take the personnel off the temporary surge line, move a number of them over to the main line, get the training in place, get them used to the jobs they’re going to be working to really de-risk the ramp up on the main line.”

Charleston Goes It Alone

Meanwhile, program leaders have begun to prepare to introduce into production exclusively at Charleston the 787-10–the largest of the three Dreamliners destined to enter service–by the end of next year. By then production of the 787-9, some 20 of which Boeing had delivered by mid-May, should predominate, said Loftis. By the end of this year Boeing expects the -9 to account for half of all the Dreamliners it builds.  

Ultimately, by the turn of the decade, Boeing plans to split production evenly between Everett and Charleston, each of which would build seven airplanes a month.

“Believe it or not, some of the preparatory work is already in place for that as well,” said Loftis. “[There’s] not a whole lot required to go from 12 to 14 because we’ll gain most of that capacity through productivity gains. But we are making sure that there’s enough capital as far as building facilities; those things are being put in place to make sure when we go to those rates we’ll be ready for it.”

As Boeing raises production rates, it goes through what Loftis called a rate readiness review with its suppliers, where the company conducts audits to ensure that they have secured the needed capital equipment, tooling, staffing, training processes and plans in place to order long-lead-time items such as forgings. “In areas that have bit us in the past we’ve learned a lot over the number of rate breaks we’ve done, explained Loftis, who named insufficient raw materials such as aluminum and titanium as common “failure modes.”

“You can think of all the things we’ve stumbled over in the past,” he said. “I’m kind of excited about a new process. Instead of letting each one of our major suppliers go out and say ‘here’s how many fasteners I need,’ we started to aggregate at the airplane level.”

The process allows much more clarity to the process houses, explained Loftis. “So they know what’s coming, versus getting a big order from one supplier and a big order from another and they aren’t timed right.”

The importance of timing, and perhaps more precisely, sequence, also applies to Boeing’s own assembly lines. For example, the company now installs many of the 787’s interior components, such as galleys and lavatories, on the line’s last two positions, which tends to place a heavy work burden at the end of the build process. Recently, Loftis and company decided to rebalance its work statement to move those items to positions earlier in the build, allowing technicians to install a fully assembled galley before they join the body sections. The change will avoid the need to take apart the galley to move the parts through the passenger doors and reassemble it inside the airplane.

Boeing institutes such changes in the interest of flow time, reduction of which must accompany any rate increases, explained Loftis. “That’s a real enabler,” he said. “The crews get to cycle faster, so they get more repetitive on the jobs. For example, if you’re going to spend five days at a position, a crew has to know five days worth of work. If you’re going to do it in three days, they only have to know three days worth of work and they can get better at it. So you tend to come down a productivity curve a lot faster.”

Of course, the amount of so-called rework in the factory also affects productivity. Loftis said the company has effected significant reductions in such “non-value-added” activity and that the pace of those reductions has accelerated in the second quarter. “The airplane did not perform in service from a reliability standpoint to our expectations,” he conceded. “So we put a lot of time and effort into fixing components that were malfunctioning or breaking.” Consequently, Boeing aggressively addressed the issues “mainly because we had to,” said Loftis, improving reliability rates from roughly between 96.5 and 97 percent in the spring of 2013, following the grounding of the worldwide fleet due to battery overheating, to close to 99 percent today.     

“The number of fixes that we’ve put in place over the past two and a half years have [resulted in] a lot of improvement,” he stressed. “It’s really showing itself here, as well, in [less need for pre-delivery test flying] to make sure it’s meeting all of our standards and our customers’ standards. So that’s also really helping to drive more predictability into our delivery schedules and plans.”