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...

In an internal Boeing document obtained by The Seattle Times, Bair projected that at all company sites including Everett and Frederickson in Washington state and this Wichita factory, at the time still owned by Boeing the 787 program would require 1,700 machinists. That's just 40 percent of the almost 4,300 he cited as working on the 777 jet at the time. (Boeing declined to comment on those figures.)

For the company, that's a dream of progress and efficiency. For veteran airplane machinists, the automation is worrying.

"It's good for business, bad for the American worker. Pretty simple," said one Spirit worker, a veteran from the plant's years under Boeing who asked not to be identified. (Spirit would not let reporters speak with workers at the rollout Monday.)

"I don't know what's going to happen to the future generations," he said in a phone interview.

No longer Boeing

Along with a new airplane and revolutionary manufacturing technology, the Spirit plant marks a transformation of Boeing's relations with suppliers and workers.

The Spirit factory was part of Boeing for 75 years. In 2005, shedding its labor-intensive and costly parts factories, Boeing sold the plant to Canadian private equity firm Onex for just over $1 billion.

The new owners immediately cut the work force by 1,300. They slashed the wages of remaining hourly employees 10 percent and reduced their benefits.

Those bitter pills were sweetened when Spirit went public last year with a successful IPO that gave blue-collar machinists a pre-tax windfall of more than $60,000 each.

Today, while wages and benefits are lower than in the Boeing days, there's plenty of work. Production is ramping up on all programs, and hiring has brought employment back to about the level it was when Boeing divested.

For the 787, Spirit customized and expanded a vacant building, providing 321,000 square feet of space to manufacture the nose section.

It installed a 70-foot-long, 30-foot-in-diameter autoclave a high-pressure oven for curing the big one-piece plastic section. It bought robotic equipment, including three enormous Brötje drilling and fastening robots and, in the clean room, an Ingersoll tape-laying machine.

The Ingersoll machine is the one that initially forms the 20-foot-diameter plastic shell of the 787 nose section.

The head of the machine moves silently, glowing red as it heats the carbon-fiber tape at the moment of contact and lays it across the contoured barrel.

Huge as it is, the machine seems lost in the 113,000-square-foot clean room the size of two football fields, including the end zones which can hold as many as three more machines.

When Boeing wants to ramp up production, said Forrest Urban, director of the operation, "the foundations are in place for more."

Stuffed for assembly

The Ingersoll machine finishes the black plastic shell with a final coating of gray adhesive to fill and smooth the surface before the whole piece is hardened in the autoclave.

Then holes are cut out for the windows and doors. This forward fuselage piece extends back through the first nine rows of passenger seats.

Afterward, circular composite plastic frames made in Marysville, Wash., by C&D Zodiac are installed at intervals along the fuselage to strengthen the shell, and the passenger-cabin floor beams go in.

The big blue Brötje machines automatically drill holes and install fasteners that hold metal reinforcements at key points such as the door and window surrounds, as well as a metal cage around the cabin where the pilots sit designed to protect the cockpit from bird collisions.

Somehow, perhaps because it's punching through plastic rather than metal, the 35-foot tall driller is so quiet it won't disturb conversations on the floor below.

With the structure largely finished, Spirit then adds many systems from other suppliers. It installs the windshield, pilot's dashboard, flight controls, forward landing gear, passenger floor and sidewall insulation. It runs wiring through the whole fuselage piece.

"We call it fully stuffed," said John Pilla, Spirit's vice president in charge of the 787 program.

On previous Boeing programs, the Wichita plant "would basically ship a structural shell," he said. "This is a big step up for us."

The nose section rolled out Monday, however, is not "fully stuffed." As expected, some of its systems won't yet be installed when Spirit gets the call to ship its first piece to Everett on the huge Dreamlifter cargo freighter.

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