Boeing to expand Seattle research center

Boeing will expand its manufacturing research center in Seattle into a 900-employee operation meant to help it avoid the early production glitches that have plagued the first 787 Dreamliners.

The move, along with a parallel expansion of composites work at its major parts fabrication plant in Auburn, Wash., is intended to bolster Boeing's internal manufacturing capabilities.

After many years of outsourcing work from its Puget Sound factories to external suppliers, the expansion represents a significant Boeing investment in the region.

Initially, the new center will focus on building preliminary fuselage, wing and tail sections of the 787-9, the larger derivative of the Dreamliner. Later, it will fine-tune the manufacturing methods on future jets.

The move could also presage some "insourcing" of 787-8 work. A local industry source said Boeing, which plans to ramp up 787 production to 10 per month by 2013, is considering building some Dreamliner wings and horizontal tails in Seattle.

Boeing said that hasn't been decided.

Even if the center eventually does manufacture 787-8 sections, Boeing's partners in Japan and Italy would continue to produce the majority of the 787's wings and horizontal tails. Seattle might build three of the 10 shipsets of wings per month under one proposal, the industry source said.

And the company still plans, as announced last year, to ensure it has suppliers outside this region for all 787 parts, so that it can continue production in case of a strike.

Boeing spokeswoman Mary Hanson said the company will, by August 2012, create a new facility at its plant in Salt Lake City, Utah, to fabricate and assemble vertical fins for the Dreamliner. That's currently the only major section made in the Seattle area, in Frederickson, near Tacoma.

Still, any mass production of Dreamliner wings and horizontal tails in Seattle would be a stunning turn for the troubled airplane program.

Company officials would not be drawn on whether it will happen.

"No decisions have been made," said Boeing spokeswoman Cris McHugh. "However, we are always looking at how we structure our supply chain."

What is already firmly decided is that effective Dec. 23 the commercial airplane unit is taking over from the military side of the company most of the factory space inside its big research building on East Marginal Way, across from the Museum of Flight. Boeing will establish there what it's calling the Advanced Developmental Composites facility.

"We are investing in both our people and in our infrastructure and assets for the future," said McHugh. "This is really a reflection of Boeing's long-term commitment to the Puget Sound region."

The highly skilled production workers in the Seattle and Auburn facilities — part of the commercial unit's Fabrication division — have fixed many of the problems arising on the Dreamliner, supplying parts that failed to show up or that needed replacing due to poor workmanship.

A Boeing internal memo to employees on the plans for the advanced composites facility says it will focus in the future on "process stabilization and production hardening."

An employee at the current facility said supervisors have said this means Boeing intends not only to develop new advanced composites manufacturing technologies at the new facility but also to fabricate major parts there in significant quantities until the production process is mature and stable.

"The plan is to grow that operation big-time," the Boeing employee said. "Their plan is to ramp up development and do initial production of the first 50 shipsets or so, and then hand off to somebody else."