Inside Boeing’s 787 Factory

The Dreamliner’s quiet revolution

The 787 composite airframe has been subjected to extreme temperatures ranging from –65 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (at Eglin Air Force Base.) (© Boeing)
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Hard-wired for intensity appropriate to his job description, Arlantico rapid-fires remarks over one shoulder as I hustle to keep up with him. “A bad day on this project is any bad hole,” he says, pointing out the drill jigs clamped to the fuselage where the titanium wing fittings bolt. In constructing aluminum airliners, most holes Boeing made in a single shot. “But carbon fiber is a very different beast,” Arlantico says. Drilling each hole for the more than 500 fasteners that attach the wings is a three-step process, beginning with a small index hole and culminating in a final bore to excruciatingly tight specs. The relationship between the fuselage hole to the bolt hole in the wing mount fitting is non-negotiable: “Even 1/5,000th of an inch of misalignment,” Arlantico says, “and you won’t be able to fit the bolt in.” The carbon fiber structure is unforgiving of the slightest inelegance with high-speed, diamond-tipped drills. A minute elongation of the hole can sear the fiber, instigating de-lamination in the 150-layer, molded composite sandwich. Don’t bother asking what if. “We’d have to patch every single layer,” Arlantico says stoically.

Any number of interested parties monitors Arlantico’s crew as they go about this exacting and critical procedure. “Our customers are welcome to their airplane at any time,” Westenskow explains. With offices just steps from the Everett line, representatives of airlines with Dreamliners in assembly often inspect this team’s work. “All Nippon Airways is the toughest customer we have,” Arlantico remarks. “Very picky, very meticulous.”

Takeo Kikuchi, ANA’s general manager of the U.S.A. Engineering Office at Boeing, admits to high standards. “We don’t like to place pressure on the Boeing workers,” he e-mails, “but I do believe our presence reminds the workers that the customer is aware and watching their work.” Kikuchi and his team closely track the construction process and apply ANA’s acceptance standards to “every inch of the airplane.” Kikuchi is obviously proud of his company’s status as the 787’s launch customer; ANA took delivery of the first Dreamliner last September. “We provided input and had a great opportunity to help make the 787 a better airplane for ANA,” Kikuchi says, “which in turn makes it a better airplane for other airlines as well.” Boeing and ANA generally agree on concepts of safety and reliability, but opinion sometimes diverges over other points—for example, special reinforcements, or “doublers,” installed as part of custom reworks to address manufacturing issues on a given airplane. Though such reworks are allowed by the certification process, ANA has balked. “We don’t like to take a new airplane with any custom-designed structure or doublers,” Kikuchi explains. “Those are tough days, when we have to have these discussions with Boeing, as this can have schedule impact.”

Kikuchi is thoughtful about his role as man-in-the-middle between a major airline in Japan and Boeing’s corporate culture. “To be frank, [it’s] a great challenge,” he says. “Located here within Boeing, I understand what is truly going on here. The ANA team in Japan does not and often finds other things difficult to understand.” Kikuchi strives to make sure each party gets what the other is thinking.

As a Dreamliner progresses through the line at Everett, hundreds of people lay hands on it. But this workforce doesn’t look like the one you might encounter at final assembly of the aluminum airliners known as Boeing’s heritage fleet. On the 787 line, a conspicuously next-gen ambiance prevails: “Very, very young,” Westenskow says of her workers. “Very adaptive, very computer-literate, very able to communicate with engineering.” She laughs and adds, “Most of them couldn’t buck a rivet because most have never built airplanes that way.”

Scott Fancher, program manager at the Everett plant at the time of my visit, is proud of keeping attrition on the 787 relatively low compared with other programs’ staffing losses. “First of all, we can’t burn people out. We have to make sure they have healthy and robust family lives in addition to their work lives,” he says. Fancher says his 787 team, all the way to the rank-and-file on the line, stay cool under fire, and he attributes this to nature as much as nurture. “Certainly, we looked toward the best of Boeing to come work on this program,” he says. “But a natural selection process occurred too.” The intense flame surrounding development environments like the 787 drives off particular psyches while attracting others. Fancher strongly believes people who thrive on the cutting edge instinctively migrate toward it. In the case of the 787, many of those turned out to be new hires from outside, mentored by more experienced workers.

Standing in the center fuselage segment surrounded by Gunnar Lofstedt and his crew of electricians, I get the feeling I don’t listen to the same bands they do. I also have an impression of events running in reverse. Instead of installing stuff, they’re busily removing intricate wiring bundles. Elements of the 787 construction are still in continual flux. Triggered by data collected in ongoing test flights and early revenue service with ANA, “change incorporation” involves everything from simple tweaks of cabin entertainment to wiring. From the electrochromic window dimmers to the fly-by-wire flight controls, almost everything on the 787 is electronic, so the slightest engineering afterthought dictates changes in wiring. But in the Dreamliner’s modular construction scheme, fuselage segments arrive from the manufacturer already pre-stuffed with 60 miles of it—installed days ago. In 787 time, that’s so last week.

“We do data, we do everything,” Lofstedt says. “A single harness might go to 10 different systems.” One fiber optic bundle extends from nose to tail, over the crown in the ceiling, then down under the floor. The bundles of color-coded spaghettini look crazy-making enough as they thread along the bare fuselage wall; imagine fully extricating a built-in wiring harness from an assembled wide-body. Isolate a few strands, incorporate the change, then weave the bundles back through a warren of conduits, access ducts, and ceiling voids to all the right connectors, without bending certain cables beyond specs. It’s the hard way, but Lofstedt and his crew proved it’s easier and faster to change the wiring by pulling the harness than do it with the harness installed. “We can pull an entire wiring bundle out of the plane in one day and put it back in in two or three,” he says.

But nothing stops to wait for them. As a 787 moves down the line, it accumulates other crews installing components even as Lofstedt’s 24 electricians incorporate changes. Which begins to sound confusing. “It starts to get very crowded very fast,” Lofstedt confirms. They’ve lingered in the airplane making revisions as late as Position 4, the final stop before rollout. To buy more time, they now begin incorporating changes way back at 0.

Examples of design modifications to the 787 include several initiated by ANA’s input, such as the addition of an automotive-style spray window washer. Unlike most Boeing airliners, 787 cockpit side windows don’t slide open to permit the flight crew to clean the windscreen; they have to rely on airport ground workers. “We shared that we fly into some airports where no ground equipment is available to gain access to clean the windows,” Takeo Kikuchi says. “Boeing reviewed our request, looked at the data we shared, and added the system.”


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