NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. – The first 787 Dreamliner assembled here waited Friday morning to roll out into the hot southern sunshine, “Made with pride in South Carolina” stenciled on its forward fuselage.
It’s a step that moves this new Boeing manufacturing site out of the shadow of Washington state.
Boeing South Carolina, which already employs around 6,000 people, has until now built 787 rear fuselages and mid-fuselages, then shipped those massive sections by air to Everett for final assembly.
As of Friday, it can boast that it also assembles complete airplanes, one of just three elite widebody jet assembly sites in the world: Everett; Toulouse, France; and now North Charleston, S.C.
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 the various 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.
At the end of the line, Dreamliner No. 46, the first Boeing-designed commercial jet ever built outside the Puget Sound region, sat ready for its moment in the sun, smoke from a smoke machine to be used in the rollout ceremony already swirling around it.
Certainly, Washington state remains the center of gravity of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. It boasts 83,000 Boeing employees, including all 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 Frederickson, about 1,500 people make tails for the 787 and 777.
Yet 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.
Boeing showed off the gleaming East Coast manufacturing complex to the media Friday morning, in advance of the afternoon rollout.
Jack Jones, vice president of Boeing South Carolina, marveled at the short timeline from knocking down trees in January 2010 to the rollout.
“From the time we went to dirt to the aircraft that’s going to roll out today – two-and-a-half years. That’s phenomenal,” Jones said Friday morning.
Marco Cavazzoni, general manager of the final assembly center, said construction of the building, at a cost of $750 million, provided jobs for 10,000 construction workers and came in seven months ahead of schedule.
The cavernous assembly bay, where four Air India 787s are currently under assembly, is a 480-foot-wide open space without interrupting columns, much wider than the one in Everett.
The assembly line is designed from scratch to incorporate changes that make it more efficient than the one in Everett.
And the sense of space is enormous. Clearly there is room here to grow and to pump out many more 787s than the current plan of three per month by 2014.
“I have what I consider the best new team and new site in the history of commercial aviation,” said Cavazzoni.
Cavazzoni said just four 787s will be delivered from here this year, as the team ramps up carefully to the three-per-month rate.
All four of this year’s jets will go to Air India.
Jones said the plane rolling out Friday has fewer than 100 jobs incomplete, a very small number.
In comparison, when Boeing rolled out the very 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 21/2 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.
The excitement among the workers here is palpable, and it’s equally obvious among local South Carolina officials.
North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey, in an interview on the eve of the rollout, said Boeing will raise the whole economic level of his city and will apply the mark of a winner.
“It’s not just the jobs that are coming with Boeing. It’s the excitement it creates in the community,” said Summey.
“Things are looking up for us. Things are looking good. If Boeing is successful, we’re successful.”