A 787 that rolled out of Boeing’s factory in Everett in January was hailed as an important milestone: the first Dreamliner built at a rate of 10 a month, the fastest for a twin-aisle jet.
But some employees who work on the aircraft are calling into question The Boeing Co.’s ability to sustain that pace. They say the two factories that assemble the 787 are struggling to cope with a ramp-up in production that started late last year, and a huge backlog of unfinished work threatens to slow output.
Boeing’s plant in North Charleston, S.C., is sending pieces to the larger plant in Everett to be completed so that the company can maintain its 10-a-month rate, according to four employees who spoke on condition of anonymity. A work order can be as simple as attaching a part or as complex as installing a duct system.
A senior employee in Everett said the problem is particularly acute with the jet’s complex wiring: Fuselage sections were arriving from North Charleston with large bundles of wires that were not connected properly.
The South Carolina workers have the skills to produce the plane correctly, “but there are not enough of them to match the rate increase,” the senior employee said. “They can’t keep up.”
The backlog, first reported in The Seattle Times, comes as the Federal Aviation Administration has launched an audit of Boeing’s factories this month. The FAA said the audit was regularly scheduled and declined to comment further.
Boeing said the audit was routine and required for Boeing to maintain its FAA certification to produce all of its airplanes. It was not focused on the South Carolina plant, Boeing said.
Boeing said the company has hired hundreds of contract workers in South Carolina and created special teams in Everett to inspect the planes and tackle the extra tasks, known as “traveled work” because it was moved from South Carolina to Everett.
“While we try to minimize it, traveled work is something we deal with in all production programs,” said Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel. “The 787 program remains on track to meet its delivery commitments in 2014, and we are producing 787s at a rate of 10 per month as planned.”
Boeing’s ability to churn out the Dreamliner is crucial to its financial performance this year as the company is relying on commercial jetliners to offset a weak defense business. While Boeing still loses money on each 787 that it builds, it gets closer to breaking even as production increases.
Cash flow from the 787 is expected to improve next year, provided the factories stay on pace, Boeing said. The cash is needed to fund new plane development, as well as fulfill investors’ desire for share buybacks and dividends.
A Boeing employee in South Carolina said factory managers are telling workers to put down their tools and let pieces move along the assembly line even if they are not finished, so that the plant can maintain its output rate.
Boeing’s spokesman confirmed it is sometimes more efficient if unfinished work is moved elsewhere so the line can keep operating at the planned pace.
The production problems with the wiring bundles have caught the attention of the FAA, whose inspectors issued Boeing at least one “letter of investigation” on the matter months ago, according to the senior Everett employee.
The letter was part of ongoing FAA oversight and has not been linked to the current audit or to any issues on the delivered planes.