Spirit ramps up for 787

With the first flight of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner mere days away, Spirit AeroSystems is prepared for its portion of the monumental airplane.

The Wichita supplier's massive machines that wind the carbon fiber barrels that make up the 787's nose section sat idle for nearly two years.

But in the past three months, Spirit restarted the production line — winding the composite section, cutting out openings for doors and windows, then stuffing the plane with flooring, wiring, tubing, ducting and avionics.

"We literally take carbon fiber material to a flight-capable cockpit," Spirit CEO Jeff Turner said during a recent conference call.

It's a unique way of building an aircraft, Turner said.

Spirit stopped production of Dreamliner parts as Boeing struggled with the 787, which is now two years behind schedule.

Despite the long delays, the Dreamliner's first flight, which could come as soon as Tuesday, will be a significant milestone, Spirit officials say.

For Spirit, "it will be the beginning of a long history of producing the 787," said Terry George, Spirit's 787 director of operations.

Getting a rhythm

The Wichita facility has been working on the 787 since 2003, when it was still part of Boeing.

George spent two years at Boeing in Everett, Wash., helping with the plane's design.

Spirit began preparing to restart production in late spring or early summer.

The most difficult part of the preparation was "just getting the learning back that we had over that period of time," George said.

Like "a faucet," production now has been turned on, Turner said.

But "it's not full and flowing yet.... We'll speed those up when we need to."

Spirit has moved more than 90 percent of the employees who were on the 787 program when production ceased back to the factory. They had been transferred to other areas when production stopped.

Spirit had built 22 of the massive nose sections when it stopped production two years ago. It's now built five more.

In all, the company has delivered 14 sections to Boeing, plus some additional test units.

Spirit is in the midst of making some significant gains to improve efficiency, George said.

"It's starting to feel much better," he said. "We're getting a rhythm in the factory."

Currently, 13 sections are in various stages of development inside the clean, bright factory.

Spirit is focusing on how many and how fast Boeing wants units to be shipped, and whether there are design changes that come out of flight testing, Turner said.

Changes to the section — the result of continual testing and evaluation of the plane's components — is the biggest challenge, George said.

Spirit is expecting more of them after the plane flies. Those kind of changes are typical of new programs, Turner said.

First customer deliveries are expected in late 2010, and Boeing expects production to rise to 10 per month by late 2013.

Producing the section

Production gets started in a clean room, a sterile part of the factory where workers in navy laboratory coats lay up carbon materials to form the stringers and fillers that strengthen the section.

They're then placed on a massive machine where composite materials are wound around them as the section is formed.

Once the forward fuselage is cured and prepared, the window and door openings are drilled and trimmed by a computer-controlled machine using digital data for precision.

Spirit then turns to more traditional assembly methods. A large machine, for example, uses fasteners to install a composite frame inside the section.

It then travels across Oliver to another hangar for systems installation and testing.

Once inside the extensively modified hangar, workers install the passenger floor, wiring, ducting, landing gear, panels, cargo rollers, avionics and other systems.

Eventually, even the pilot seats and cockpit closet will be installed.

When it ships, "it will be ready for the pilot to sit in the seat and go," George said.