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Work on 787 began in 2003 Dreamliner delivery a milestone for Spirit AeroSystems

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Sep. 25, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, Sep. 25, 2011, at 8:43 a.m.

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Boeing's long-awaited delivery Monday of the first 787 Dreamliner to a customer is an important milestone for Wichita's Spirit AeroSystems, which builds the composite nose section and pylons.

Boeing plans to deliver the widebody plane to All Nippon Airways in Tokyo.

At Spirit, "the people involved with this airplane have put their heart and soul into it, without a doubt," said Spirit's 787 program manager Terry George.

Many employees will be watching Boeing's delivery ceremonies through a webcast during their lunch hour on Monday.

Spirit began work on the Dreamliner in 2003.

"We've been involved since the 787 was just a glint in someone's eye," said Spirit spokesman Ken Evans.

Hundreds of Spirit employees work on the 787. Spirit doesn't release employment figures by program.

Spirit plans to deliver its 49th nose section to Boeing on Monday. A uniquely modified 747 large cargo freighter, called the Dreamlifter, flies to Wichita to pick up the sections for delivery.

Boeing's start of 787 deliveries is significant to Spirit.

The deliveries mean that risk-sharing partners such as Spirit will begin to take in revenue, said Teal Group aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia.

"It's (Spirit's) most important program — long delayed," Aboulafia said. "So that's very welcome."

With deliveries to the airlines beginning, Spirit will focus on ramping up 787 production, George said.

"As a company, it means that together, we're going to begin this production ramp-up that we've been waiting for," George said.

Production is expected to increase from today's rate of two per month to 10 per month by the end of 2013, Boeing said.

Boeing has 821 orders for the plane, a record for the launch of a new airplane.

Today, Spirit has the facilities and the capital to produce seven nose sections per month.

The company also broke ground this summer on a 62,600-square-foot expansion to its composite fuselage facility to help give Spirit the capacity to meet Boeing's goal of producing 10 787s a month.

The program has been Spirit's most complex and difficult, George said. And the learning curve has been steep.

"When you think of the magnitude, this was significantly the most work," George said.

The 787 is the first commercial airliner to be made from carbon composites.

The carbon fibers are wound around a carbon barrel and baked — a departure from traditional aluminum fuselage sections.

Spirit calls it a technology milestone.

Inside Spirit's leased south hangar on the west side of Oliver, six forward fuselage sections are in varying stages of completion. Another is ready for delivery.

Spirit delivers the nose section stuffed with all the systems and equipment ready to go, including a flight deck with pilot seats, jump seat, telephone, printer and pilots' headsets installed.

Spirit workers install the flooring, power panels, wiring, insulation and ducting.

In the cargo hold of the nose section, roller trays are installed along with a cargo door.

Passenger seats and stow bins are installed in Seattle during final assembly.

Across Oliver, composite nose sections are wound and cured in Spirit's composite fuselage facility.

Spirit installed a 30-foot by 70-foot autoclave to take on the project.

The autoclave weighs the same as 145 Hummer SUVs, is big enough to park four semi-trucks inside and has enough electrical capacity to supply nearly 2,000 homes.

Spirit is now fully meeting its contractual obligations for the condition of assembly, George said.

It's delivering the section completed to the level agreed to with Boeing at the program's beginning.

Spirit recently began to reach all the testing that's needed on the section — testing of the cockpit displays and software, the hydraulics and landing gear.

One of Spirit's biggest challenges, however, was the repeated delays in the program, George said.

The program is more than three years behind the original schedule.

Over time, Boeing's launch-to-delivery time increased from an ambitious four years to more than seven.

Boeing has had seven production holds to allow late suppliers to catch up.

With a record number of supplier partners on the program and a steep learning curve, Boeing officials have said their oversight on the program was too lax in the beginning. They also have questioned how much work they've placed with outside suppliers.

At the same time, officials have repeatedly hailed Spirit as a successful partner and supplier on the program.

Challenges

There are challenges ahead.

Spirit's goal is to continue to make improvements in the aircraft's manufacturing as mechanics become more efficient to complete work.

The company must build the sections more efficiently.

The way to do that is with repetition and input from those who work on it, George said.

"You keep the faith and you keep cycling the airplanes," George said. "You allow the people to learn. You get traction and you keep going."

Spirit's challenges mirror Boeing's, said Aboulafia, the Teal Group analyst.

All of Boeing's 787 partners, including Spirit, must build the aircraft in a way that makes money, he said.

Typically, the early airplanes of a new model aren't profitable because of the learning curve involved on how to produce them, he said.

"All partners bear the responsibility of building an aircraft with manufacturing costs that don't result in losses," Aboulafia said.

Despite the challenges, the 787 program is a "labor of love," George said.

"Everybody has spent a significant number of years of their life on this program," he said. "It's very satisfying to see this airplane going into service."

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com.

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