Boeing struggles with 787 production bottlenecks

Tue Feb 11, 2014 3:41am EST
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By Alwyn Scott and Harriet McLeod

SEATTLE/NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina (Reuters) - A 787 that rolled out of Boeing's factory in Everett, Washington, 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 Boeing Co's (BA.N: Quote) 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, South Carolina, cannot finish thousands of work orders and 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."

Boeing said it is aware of the bottlenecks and is working to fix the problems. 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."

The backlog, first reported in the Seattle Times, comes as the U.S. 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.   Continued...

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner is seen under construction at the Boeing facility in Everett, Washington in this February 17, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Jason Reed/Files