787 Still Having Problems With Unfinished Work From S.C.

June 24--Last Thursday, Boeing paid out big bonuses to its South Carolina workforce for meeting an early May deadline to significantly reduce the amount of unfinished 787 Dreamliner work traveling to Everett.

But an unusual production mishap on the 787 assembly line in Everett two days earlier reveals a continued problem with incomplete fuselage sections from South Carolina, according to employees with knowledge of what happened.

And a day after that incident, production of the jet suffered another blow. In an accident unrelated to the South Carolina work, an Everett mechanic on the same 787 assembly line was seriously injured.

The first mishap was traced to work done inside the Everett factory by a team from Boeing's plant in South Carolina.

This team is in Everett to help complete so-called "traveled work" -- work that should have been done in Boeing's North Charleston fuselage-fabrication plant but wasn't completed before the sections shipped.

During 787 assembly, before the point where all the fuselage sections and wings are joined to make the complete airframe, the fuselage sections are held in place by cradles. After the join is made, the cradles are lowered and removed.

According to employees, when mechanics removed the cradles that held the rear fuselage in place on Dreamliner No. 214 -- destined for Royal Jordanian Airways -- nearly 100 improperly installed fasteners clattered to the factory floor.

A subsequent inspection found the South Carolina team in Everett had installed hundreds of temporary fasteners near the join between the two aft fuselage sections without the collars needed to hold them in place.

"If they can't make sure this is done, what else are they forgetting?" said a frustrated Everett employee.

He said that the error showed a lack of the most basic knowledge and that this work should be routine at this stage in the jet program.

This employee, like others interviewed about the incidents, asked to remain anonymous because he isn't authorized by Boeing to speak publicly. He questioned management oversight of the manufacturing process.

"They cannot have quality inspectors come in and check these things before they move to the next position in the line?," the employee said. "Give me a break."

Boeing spokeswoman Debbie Heathers said the company "will not respond to specific questions about day-to-day operations in the factory."

Work coming out of Boeing South Carolina was problematic from the beginning of the 787 program 10 years ago, when the fuselage facilities were operated by suppliers Vought and Alenia.

When workers with little experience proved unable to deliver the expected completed sections at the required pace, the unfinished work was passed on to final assembly in Everett.

This out-of-sequence work caused huge bottlenecks and contributed to years of delays. Boeing subsequently bought out both suppliers and sent in hundreds of experienced people and contractors to smooth the manufacturing process.

Last fall, the South Carolina fabrication facility fell badly behind again and the amount of traveled work spiked as Boeing simultaneously raised the production rate and let go hundreds of contractors.

That prompted Boeing management to bring back many contractors and to offer the permanent workforce an incentive bonus if they could successfully catch up on the work behind schedule and greatly reduce the amount of traveled work.

In May, the South Carolina production workers met the preset target and Boeing awarded an incentive bonus of 8 percent of last year's gross pay.

Last week, some 7,500 production workers received approximately $3,000 to $4,000 each. About 900 engineers, managers and office workers received a flat $2,500.

Yet several Everett employees said workers here are still struggling to fix or finish the fuselage sections from North Charleston.

"Planes are going out (to airlines) better than they were, but it's only because of the people in Everett," the first employee said.

Another employee said that incomplete work from South Carolina continues to hold up work at the initial assembly position in Everett.

"Multiple times we start work on a section one to three days late, doing overtime to catch up with production," said this second employee.

In an emailed statement, Heathers said the 787 program is on track with its targeted production rate of 10 airplanes per month. "We are focused on improving our processes to stabilize operations and production," Heathers said.

The second incident had a much more serious consequence than the first.

At the points where the fuselage sections join, Boeing deploys a Flex Track automatic driller that is mounted on rails around the circumference of the fuselage.

This machine moves around the join, drilling precisely accurate holes and installing fasteners.

Last Wednesday, the drilling head of a Flex Track machine detached from the rails and fell from the airplane. The heavy part hit a mechanic working below, seriously injuring him. He was taken to Seattle's Harborview Medical Center, according to co-workers.

Heathers said he received medical attention at the scene and would not release other details.

"We take very seriously the safety and well being of our employees at all times," said Heathers. "We continue to investigate the incident and have issued safety reminders to our team."

The state's Department of Labor and Industries is investigating the cause along with Boeing.

In February 2012, then 30-year-old Boeing worker Joshua Divers fell under the wheels of a 787 being towed on the Everett flight line and had to have both legs amputated.

Divers still works at Boeing and said Monday he's "doing really well."

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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