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Boeing's Internal War On The 787 Is Getting Serious

Stock MarketsFeb 06, 2014 12:25PM ET
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By Christopher Harress - The Boeing Company (NYSE:BA) 787 Dreamliner plant in South Carolina is being criticized by Seattle-based colleagues after sending fuselage sections with incomplete hydraulics and wiring for final assembly, according to a report in the Seattle Times.

The shoddy work, according to one employee, is not a new thing and has steadily got worse in recent months, undermining the company’s plans to speed up the production rate to 10 787-8 jets a month.

A Boeing spokesperson said in Monday’s report that its South Carolina plant was delivering on time and making its rate commitments and that the company sees “no risk to the program.”

However, an engineer from the South Carolina plant has said that they are far behind schedule and that management has insisted on sending unfinished planes to Seattle in order to keep up the planned rate.

Various issues have arisen on the line, it has been reported. For example, engineers in Seattle recently worked extra hours on a plane to discover why an electrical system was not working correctly, only to discover that whole sections of electrical wiring were not connected, despite paperwork from Charleston saying they were.

Boeing admitted that it had experienced problems in Charleston but they were temporary and that management had committed to a plan to make improvements.

However, what may be more difficult for Seattle workers to stomach is that workers in Charleston received a larger percentage in their annual bonus. Workers in Charleston got around 18 extra days pay or 6.9 percent whereas those in Seattle got 16 or 6.15 percent.

However, a Seattle-based engineer said that it is actually the machinists in Puget Sound that were keeping the whole operation going -- and they will only be receiving a 4 percent bonus.

According to the engineer, one plane on the line had around 2,000 incomplete jobs that Charleston was supposed to complete. However, it was stressed that this does not constitute a safety concern because all systems are tested before the build is complete and the aircraft delivered. The problem, as the unnamed engineer says, is the extra hours and money required to complete the work satisfactorily.

A Boeing South Carolina engineer cited in the article said that the problems had been coming for months and contributed three main factors for the demise in quality.

First of all, when the plant was established in 2011, experienced aviation workers from all of the U.S. were hired, mainly to instill good standards and work as quality inspectors. Many of them were let go in the last few months. That decision, along with the introduction to the line of the longer 787-9 model, which is slightly different from the 787-8, has caused production to dip from 10 to 7 a month as workers struggle with new instructions and techniques.

In addition, he said that around the time the experienced workers were let go, the company demanded a higher level of output which caused workers to rush jobs. 

Boeing plans to increase production levels of the Dreamliner to 10 per month, before increasing that to 12 per month in 2016, and then 14 in 2020.

So dire is Boeing’s problem in Charleston, they’ve hired back 300 to 4000 contractors who had previously been let go. The plant is not unionized, which means Boeing has the power to cut people whenever it wants.

To help the less experienced workers in South Carolina, Boeing has had to re-write the instruction manuals for each stage of assembly. Previous versions were, as the engineer said, riddled with errors, mostly because the experienced workers didn’t need word-for-word instructions; most machinists had a vast array of legacy knowledge.

While Boeing's 787 battery problems continue to be a burden for its Dreamliner operation, another engineer based in Seattle said that the production process for the 787 was is long way off from being a smooth operation and that every plane was a struggle. 

Boeing's Internal War On The 787 Is Getting Serious

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