787 Nose Construction Shows the Face of Future Composite Plane Factories

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.

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.

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