Special Reports

March 1, 2014

There’s a Spirit of change in aviation production

Rising production rates from record demand for commercial passenger jets have meant changes for Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita.

Rising production rates from record demand for commercial passenger jets have meant changes for Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita.

Since 2010, Boeing has increased production of the 737 about 33 percent, from 31.5 per month to a record 42 per month – more than 500 737s a year.

Production is scheduled to rise again in 2017 to 47 per month, the company has said. And it may not stop there.

Spirit AeroSystems builds the 737 fuselage, pylons and thrust reversers in Wichita and ships them by rail to Boeing. It also builds part of the wing at its Tulsa facility.

“We have a very good team that does a lot of behind-the-scenes planning,” said Vic McMullen, Spirit vice president and general manager of operations.

Spirit is studying its production systems and its supply base as it prepares for the next rate hike. With the high-rate volume, Spirit’s production systems are extremely complex, McMullen said.

“We’ve continued to lean out our production systems; we’ve enhanced our efficiencies,” he said, affecting a variety of areas such as engineering, tooling, operations, supply chain and production flows.

“It’s been an orchestra of pushing for improvements across the company,” McMullen said.

One area it continues to push is quality.

Producing a quality part or structure correctly the first time prevents the time and cost associated with rework.

Spirit has also hired more hands-on workers, added tooling and worked with its largest union, the Machinists, to change workdays to three 12-hour shifts in some areas.

That way it can keep production going six days a week instead of five.

Schedule changes affected those working in automated fastening in the 737 and 777 areas and keep the machines operating.

“We’ve been doing that for a couple of months now with the help of the union,” McMullen said. “It set us up very nicely for this rate (of 42 a month).”

Spirit is studying where else the change could be applied to improve efficiency, he said.

Boeing has nearly 3,700 unfilled orders for the popular 737 single-aisle airliner on its books – more than seven years’ worth of production at current levels.

Beverly Wyse, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s 737 program, said in February that Boeing has been studying whether to raise production to 52 737s a month in 2018 or 2019.

Boeing has been studying its supply chain to understand what its capacity is and where it would need to be, Wyse said.

No decision has been made.

In the meantime, Spirit is evaluating its plans to increase rates to 47 per month and beyond, McMullen said.

With the changes made to bring production up to 42 a month, “we don’t know how good we can be yet,” McMullen said.

“We’re really going to see some efficiencies on this 42 (per month),” he said. “As we do this rate increase and find out how good we can be, then we’ll determine where we can go on the next rate round.”

It’s too soon to tell whether Spirit will need more space or what other changes will have to be made.

Spirit will focus on how to incorporate more efficient means of production to help the company avoid huge capital expenditures, McMullen said.

“We may discover ... we can go higher, and there’s no capital or anything required,” McMullen said. “We’re so early into this 42-a-month rate.”

Spirit handles all the production in Wichita within one factory, McMullen said.

That’s unusual.

Other companies typically need three or four facilities to handle those kinds of rates, he said.

In the meantime, Spirit also is preparing to change from the 737 Next Generation model to the 737 MAX, an upgraded 737 with new engines.

Spirit will gradually make the change by slowly ramping up production of the 737 MAX while slowly ramping down the 737NG, McMullen said.

It’s similar to when Boeing changed the 737 from the classic model to the Next Generation upgraded model.

So the company has a history of making those kind of changes.

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