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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

A day at the 787 Dreamliner assembly line

A look out at the 787 Dreamliner assembly line in the giant Boeing plant in Everett, Washington.
(Credit: Daniel Terdiman/CNET)
EVERETT, Wash.--The 787 Dreamliner program may be three years behind schedule and battling a legacy of delays, but that isn't stopping Boeing from building the next-generation airplanes one after another.
Yesterday, as the last act of a three-day media extravaganza timed to Boeing's Sunday unveiling of the 747-8 Intercontinental, I got a chance to take a first-hand look at the Dreamliner assembly line.

By now, the story of the 787 is well-chronicled. Originally unveiled on July 8, 2007, (07/08/07) the plane was supposed to take its first flight later that year and begin carrying passengers in the spring of 2008. But one delay after another, caused by mechanical problems, work stoppages, supplier slowdowns, and even an on-board fire, has to date kept the all-new plane out of the hands of Boeing's carrier customers.
But it has made its first flight--as well as many subsequent flights--and in a media briefing today, Scott Fancher, the vice president and general manager of the 787 program, reiterated what Boeing has said previously: that it will hand the plane over to its launch customer, All Nippon Airways, sometime in the third quarter of this year.

All that drama aside, as an airplane nut, it was a lot of fun to get a chance to see the 787 assembly line in person. For one thing, there's nothing like seeing industrial production on the scale of Boeing's Everett plant--said to be the largest building in the world, by volume. For another, because of its advanced body--made from composite materials rather than metal--seeing the 787 in its unfinished form is downright cool.

Rather than having the standard brushed metal look common to other in-progress Boeing planes, the Dreamliner fuselage comes delivered to Everett--via the gargantuan custom cargo 747 known as the Dreamlifter--with a pristine glossy white primer. That makes the plane look clean and promising in a way that the others that I've seen in progress in Everett haven't.

But that's neither here nor there. As Boeing moves toward putting the Dreamliner in the hands of ANA and other carrier customers--including Air India, for which one of the planes I saw was being built--it's an important sign that it is turning the planes out at a rate of two aircraft a month.

The company line is that Boeing will build between 25 and 40 747-8 Intercontinentals and Dreamliners this year, split roughly 50/50. But Fancher explained that by late 2013, when the aviation giant's new South Carolina assembly plant is up and running, it will be turning out 10 787s a month.

For now, though, with the plane still in testing, the planes coming off the line aren't going anywhere. Indeed, until they're certified for flying passengers, Boeing isn't even building out their interiors or putting engines on them. That's because that work, and that gear, is expensive, and the company feels it is better to simply stockpile the planes in Everett--where it currently has 24 Dreamliners sitting on various tarmacs--until certification. At that point, it shouldn't take too long to get the planes ready for delivery, though Fancher wouldn't specify precisely how long.

Position zero
As it is currently laid out, the Dreamliner assembly line takes up a single, albeit huge, bay in the Everett plant. When the giant fuselage barrels--because they are made from composite materials, the fuselage is not comprised of body panels but rather complete tube-shaped sections--come off the Dreamlifter, they are transported into the plant via a massive door.

All Dreamliner parts are first placed in what is called "position zero," where they will sit for 24 hours to ensure that they can all adjust to the temperature. Next up is "position one," where all the major parts are structurally joined. Then it's on to "position two," where the landing gears are added, making it possible for the young Dreamliners to proceed ahead on their own wheels.

On any given day, then, Boeing has four Dreamliners under construction, one each at position one, position two, position three, and, yes, position four. As you might expect, each successive position means more progress toward completion.

According to Fancher, Boeing is 80 percent through certification testing on its 787 Rolls-Royce engine configuration and about 60 percent through on certification testing for its General Electric engines. To date, Boeing has seven Dreamliners flying in its test program, and the company received over the weekend equipment needed for testing fixes to the power panel that caused the fire aboard one of the planes in November.

And while some may be skeptical of Boeing's ability to get the 787 in customers' hands, Fancher said the company is "on track" to meet its current third-quarter plan.
For now, then, Dreamliner enthusiasts will have to keep on waiting for their first ride. But for those lucky enough to get to visit the plane's assembly line here, that wait is just a little bit easier.