By Dominic Gates
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — The first 787 Dreamliner assembled here rolled out under a hot Southern sun Friday afternoon, its forward fuselage bearing a stencil that read, "Made with pride in South Carolina."
As the jet emerged into the glare, this new Boeing manufacturing site also moved out of the shadow of Washington state.
Boeing South Carolina, which already employs around 6,000 people, has previously built 787 rear fuselages and mid-fuselages, then shipped those massive sections by air to Everett for final assembly. And Boeing has never built a commercial airplane of its own design anywhere but in Washington.
Now South Carolina can boast that it also produces complete airplanes, one of just three elite sites in the world to assemble widebody jets: Everett; Toulouse, France; and now North Charleston.
And unlike Everett, Boeing South Carolina does the entire sequence of plane making, from soup to nuts.
Here, resin-soaked carbon fiber tape is pulled out of cold storage, wound into barrel-shaped fuselage sections, and baked to hardness. And in a new 1.2 million-square-foot final assembly site, all of the pieces of the airplane are joined and integrated, its systems installed and tested, until it's ready to fly.
"This is the only site in the world that can say we go from freezer all the way to flight," said Matt Borland, director of 787 aft fuselage assembly.
"Plenty" for everybody
After a parade by a high-school marching band, a stirring rendition of the national anthem by a young worker, fireworks that added Boeing blue to the blazing sunlit air, and speeches by company leaders and local politicians, Dreamliner No. 46 rolled out to the cheers of the gathered employees and dignitaries.
Certainly, Washington state remains the center of gravity of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. It boasts 83,000 Boeing employees, including all of the commercial-airplane engineers who design the jets. The Everett widebody-jet plant — home to the 787 design team and the first 787 assembly line — alone has more than 33,000 workers.
In an interview under the wing of the new Dreamliner after the ceremony, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Jim Albaugh sought to dampen worries about future competition between Everett and North Charleston.
"We're locked into Puget Sound," Albaugh said. "We'll be building the 737, the 747, the 767, the 777, the 787, for a couple of decades. I don't think the people in Puget Sound need to worry about their future. ... There's plenty of work for everybody."
Yet he also reiterated a warning he has offered in the past: that for any future work "there are no entitlements."
"All the sites understand, they have to build quality airplanes, they have to do it within budget, they have to do it on schedule," he said.
Albaugh added that Boeing is taking a hard look at its supply chain after the "heavy price" it paid for outsourcing on the 787. The impact of natural disasters, such as last year's earthquake in Japan and the tornado this month in Wichita, Kan., is also prompting concern.
"It's only prudent to look at having multiple sites," Albaugh said.
Clearly Boeing South Carolina is now a significant, high-tech part of Boeing's commercial-jet operations, one focused entirely on making and assembling its newest jet made from carbon-fiber-reinforced composite plastic.
And when it comes to building the next new airplane, the ambitions of the East and West Coast sites seem bound to clash.
A white poster board displayed on the shop floor inside Boeing's spanking-new 787 interiors-fabrication facility illustrated that point.
The poster's center shows the facility's current target: churning out interior fixtures for three 787 Dreamliners per month.
But from there, arrows sweep upward to future goals, where large letters spell out "797" — denoting whatever airplane Boeing builds next.
"This is about what do we want to be when we grow up," said Lane Ballard, director of the facility, 11 miles from Boeing's main Dreamliner manufacturing and final-assembly complex.
He wasn't shy about the goal of helping South Carolina build Boeing's next new jet, one that Boeing's Washington production workers also know they must compete for.
"We want to be positioned to be the most competitive and engaged workforce, ready to take on that opportunity," said Ballard.
He added that he's sure Everett must be similarly focused.
"The company will explore all options," said Ballard. "Hopefully there's plenty of room for everybody."
2 ½-year phenomenon
Like Albaugh, influential South Carolina state Rep. Harry "Chip" Limehouse insisted that Everett and North Charleston are now a team.
"We're not competing with Everett. We're working in concert," he said. "The rear fuselage of every 787 assembled in Everett is built here. The mid-fuselage of every 787 assembled in Everett is built here. And on 787 final assembly, we can't keep up with demand. We've all got to try to keep up together."
But South Carolina stands ready to expand Boeing's footprint. Limehouse, who is also chairman of the area's airport authority, last month blocked approval of an air-cargo facility at the airport on the grounds that Boeing would need the land for expansion.
"Boeing is going to come here and build another line," Limehouse said then.
Boeing's East Coast manufacturing complex gleamed on Friday, and Jack Jones, vice president of Boeing South Carolina, marveled at the short timeline from knocking down trees in January 2010 to rollout.
"From the time we went to dirt to the aircraft that's going to roll out today — 2 ½ years. That's phenomenal," said Jones.
The cavernous assembly bay, where four Air India 787s are under assembly, is a 480-foot-wide space without interrupting columns, much wider than the one in Everett.
Marco Cavazzoni, general manager of the final assembly center, said just four 787s will be delivered from here this year — all to Air India — as the workforce ramps up carefully to the three-per-month target rate.
"I have what I consider the best new team and new site in the history of commercial aviation," said Cavazzoni.
Troubles "all behind us"
Boeing managers say the problems that plagued the early fuselage-fabrication work in South Carolina — and that led Boeing to buy out its partners, Vought of Texas and Alenia of Italy — have almost disappeared.
Willy Geary, who is in charge of the mid-fuselage assembly center, said his site was once "the number one problem on the program."
"We are no longer," he said. "It's all behind us."
He said the latest mid-fuselage section, for Dreamliner No. 67, would fly to Everett on Friday night with just five jobs incomplete, out of 4,000.
A Boeing South Carolina production worker, who spoke anonymously because Boeing won't allow employees to speak freely to the media, said privately that "the workforce is maturing" and that a "culture of quality" is taking hold.
"We're just now getting things squared away," the worker said.
In a further sign of higher-quality work in South Carolina, Jones, the Boeing VP, said the plane that rolled out Friday has less than 100 jobs incompleted.
"That's a phenomenally clean airplane going to the field," he said.
In comparison, when Boeing rolled out the first Dreamliner in 2007 in Everett, the plane was a shell with a few fake surfaces painted to look real. That plane didn't fly until 2 ½ years after rollout.
Jones said Air India's South Carolina 787 will fly in three to four weeks and will be delivered by the end of June.
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