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The 787 composite airframe has been subjected to extreme temperatures ranging from –65 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (at Eglin Air Force Base.) (© Boeing)

Inside Boeing’s 787 Factory

The Dreamliner’s quiet revolution.

I’ve been warned. “The cool factor in here is pretty awesome,” says Kim Westenskow, Boeing’s 787 factory superintendent, Position 4, as she escorts me to the assembly line in the company’s Everett, Washington plant. But that’s not the first thing that strikes you about this voluminous workspace, 380 feet wide and 10 football fields long. It’s the absence of industrial racket. The Dreamliner’s molded composite constituents are bolted together, and the holes are bored to the whir of air-driven, fluid-cooled, diamond-tipped drills. The aluminum 747 a few doors down requires drilling more than a million holes in metal, a process accompanied by ear-splitting fusillades of rivet guns and hammers. “They’re the other guys,” Westenskow explains. “The loud ones. We’re the quiet bunch.”

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Between Position 0 and Position 4 on the line, disjointed wings and fuselage segments from around the world merge into a glossy white wide-body ready for the paint hangar and some major airline’s corporate livery. Westenskow enumerates the segments while extemporizing an atlas of global outsourcing: “Forward portion’s from Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita. Vertical fin’s from Boeing fabrication division in Tacoma. Tail cone’s from Japan, the horizontal stabilizer and fuselage segments are from Alenia in Italy.” The precision specs involved in 787 assembly impose upon Boeing’s worldwide partners a conformity undreamt of by the United Nations. With a passing glance, it’s impossible to distinguish 787 composite components cured in an enormous autoclave in southern Italy from those produced in the American heartland or at a Japanese aerospace giant.

Under the scrutiny of quality control engineers at Boeing, however, the contrasts have sometimes been stark. Alenia Aeronautica improperly torqued shims used to fill gaps in the airplane’s horizontal stabilizer. The errors threatened the component’s structural integrity, briefly halting 787 test flights in 2010. The year before, Boeing discovered that the skin of Alenia’s composite fuselage segments had wrinkles caused by internal stringers that were out-of-spec, necessitating patches to existing segments and design reworks for future production. While outside analysts report that Boeing is satisfied with Alenia’s improved performance over the past year, particularly the fuselage segments made in Grottaglie, the company maintains tentative plans to shift initial primary production of the stabilizer for the 787-9 variant back to Seattle.

From 2008, when he became 787 program manager at Boeing’s Everett, Washington factory, to February, when he handed off the job to Larry Loftis, all of those problems and more landed on the desk of Scott Fancher. By the time Fancher took over the project, the 787 was mid-season in an industrial soap opera. Fancher had spent his previous three decades with the company in its military divisions, working on staples including the F/A-18 Hornet and exotica like the airborne laser program. “It was a bit unusual for them to bring someone from the military business over to commercial,” he acknowledges, “so clearly I expected this was going to be a challenge.”

“Challenge” is one word for what confronted him. Overweight, over-budget, and overdue are others, with footnotes for striking unions, stressed-out customer airlines, and structural cracks. The 787 is in many ways a clean-slate departure from Boeing’s aluminum airliner fleet; its composite structure, intended to lower operating costs by reducing weight and therefore fuel usage, and features emphasizing passenger comfort, inherited from the Sonic Cruiser concept of the 1990s, had never before been built. The innovations turned the project into a saga of technical tribulation and continual organizational gut-checking. Now that the official EIS (entry into service) is history, expect some of that drama, and the thousands of aviation blog posts it spawned, to begin a slow fade. Though Fancher laughs when he remarks that most development projects in aviation “seem a lot easier after some time has passed,” he’s right. Few today remember the problems the now-sainted 747 faced: Engine faults necessitated grounding the first 20 production models for months, and recalling the airplane delivered to launch customer Pan Am.

At the assembly line’s present rate, 3.5 Dreamliners roll out each month. By contrast, in the same time span, Boeing produces 1.5 747s. By the end of next year, with additional production boosts, the planned addition of a “surge line” in Everett and production from Boeing’s Charleston, South Carolina assembly facility, every month 10 back-ordered Dreamliners will wing into the waiting arms of an airline. Only the 737 is produced in larger volume (currently 35 rollouts monthly).

In this economy’s low light, it looks like glimmers of job creation. But Boeing is cautious about projecting the 787’s employment potential. For one thing, as its novel construction process is tweaked, existing workers get more efficient. “As we improve at assembling this airplane,” Westenskow says, “we’ll actually need less people to build each one, not more.”

At Position 0, newly arrived composite components pause for 24 hours so their temperatures will stabilize. Tolerances for assembly are so tight that even minute variations—slight contraction caused by exposure to cold on the flight from a manufacturing center to here—can affect the process. At Position 1, the big pieces come together, Westenskow says: “All five at once: two wings and three fuselage segments.” The FBJ (Final Body Join) tool, a multi-tentacle jig, cradles the constituents and uses indoor GPS and laser measurement devices to mate them with automated accuracy. Position 2 finishes the electrical connections among the segments and installs the floors. Position 3 fits the interiors. Position 4 tests all functions.

The strikingly svelte 787 wing, displayed overhead in the jig that mates it to the fuselage, looks like a gallery exhibit. Westenskow points, tracing the aesthetically pleasing curve. Produced by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan, its carbon-fiber–aluminum hybrid structure is as mean as it is lean. Exactly how thin the wing is, Boeing won’t say. But Everett workers chosen to squeeze up into it must pass a physical qualifications test “which includes a very small hole,” Westenskow says. With line speed-ups looming, the wing join process is the key to making delivery commitments. If things slow down here, everything else stops.

It has happened before. Unlike aluminum airplanes with substantial spars spanning the connection between wing and fuselage, or wing join, the Dreamliner’s mostly composite wings bolt directly to the fuselage in a complex connection called the “side-of-body join.” Two years ago, stress tests revealed cracks in the center wing box (where each wing joins the airplane’s body inside the fuselage), bringing the vast project to a standstill for months. A time-consuming redesign to the fittings that support the connection at stringer (stiffening rods on each wing’s upper skin) attachment points was proved through exhaustive testing. Westenskow calls the team now implementing the modification at Position 1 “the best mechanics in the program.” That would be Erwin Arlantico and crew. They bear the sobering responsibility of attaching 787 wings.

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