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 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.

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.

Boeing wants all the big pieces to arrive from its major partners within the next few weeks.

Inside the Everett plant where the 787's final assembly will also be very different from that of existing jets mechanics will then begin the sprint to fit together the first airplane for its scheduled rollout in July.

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