787 Nose Construction Shows the Face of Future Composite Plane Factories

WICHITA, Kan. -- Inside the Spirit AeroSystems plant here, the nose-and-cockpit section of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner takes shape in a vast, clean, quiet space one largely devoid of people. Everything is automated, from the guided vehicles that...


WICHITA, Kan. -- Inside the Spirit AeroSystems plant here, the nose-and-cockpit section of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner takes shape in a vast, clean, quiet space one largely devoid of people.

Everything is automated, from the guided vehicles that move the big aircraft pieces to the giant drilling machines that tower above the floor.

It's a sharp contrast to the adjacent building, where Spirit builds the same nose sections for all of Boeing's other jets.

There, the staccato din of rivet guns assaults the ear, and every inch of the factory floor is jammed with fixtures and drilling machines. Dozens of machinists bustle about, each focused on his task of drilling, fastening or machining metal parts.

Just as the 787's pioneering all-plastic exterior makes it the airplane of the future, the plant where its nose section is built represents the airplane factory of the future. The plastic material enables unprecedented automation, drastically reducing the hand labor and the jobs involved in making airplane parts.

The Spirit plant and similar factories in Japan, Italy and South Carolina make up the unprecedented global network on which Boeing relies for the major sections of the 787. In the coming weeks, those sections will all arrive in Everett, launching the final assembly phase of the first plane.

The 787's advance sales have returned Boeing to dominance in the airplane world. Now everything depends on building it right, beginning with the largest fuselage piece, made in Wichita.

Though Spirit is scrambling to build the massive nose sections of the first airplanes, remarkably few workers operate the machines.

The 40-foot-long section is formed as a single piece by winding carbon fiber tape around a large mold. Tending the tape-laying machine, a computer-controlled marvel of technology, takes only three technicians.

On a visit Monday to this "clean room" area cleaner even than the rest of the immaculate facility only one of the workers was in evidence. He wore a spotless white lab coat.

As Spirit rolled out the cockpit section of the first airplane to much fanfare that day, Kurt Kraft, head of Boeing's 787 fuselage team from Everett, declared to the assembled workers that the distinctive look of the sleek Dreamliner nose represents a turning point in the building of commercial airplanes.

"It will instantly be recognized for its cutting-edge technology, its leading-edge design and its futuristic manufacturing methods," Kraft said. "It's the shape of things to come."

Old and new

To see the old way of building airplanes, just hop over to the nearby building where Spirit makes traditional metal nose-and-cockpit sections for Boeing, as well as the entire fuselage of the 737.

There's no empty space here, no room to move aircraft parts around the building except by overhead crane.

Workers wearing earplugs or heavy earmuffs clamber up and down platforms around man-size metal pieces of a 737, a 747 or a 777.

Their jeans and T-shirts bear the normal smudges of manual factory labor. A grease-stained rag hangs from a mechanic's hip pocket.

Where the 737 fuselage is assembled, workers inside the nearly completed airplane manhandle the long, curved upper lobe of the forward fuselage into place. As the top slides down, the paint difference shows it an inch or two out of position.

Three mechanics pull on it, one using his left arm only, his rivet gun in his right. They heave, and with a lurch the metal section falls exactly and satisfyingly into place.

In Spirit's older buildings, airplanes to a surprising extent are still hand-built.

But in the newest facility in Wichita, the making of the 787 Dreamliner is changing that forever.

The degree of automation will yield massive savings on labor costs, according to a presentation 787 program chief Mike Bair made when he pitched the jet to the Boeing board in Chicago in 2003.

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