Boeing takes steps to bump up 787 build rate with building buy in Utah

Battery woes not expected to impact 2013 plane production schedule

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The Boeing Co. (Chicago, Ill.) on Jan. 11 announced the purchase of an 850,000-ft2/78,976m2 building in West Jordan, Utah. The facility eventually will house fabrication operations for composite horizontal stabilizer components destined for the 787-9 version of the company’s Dreamliner aircraft. The new site is located only 20 miles from, and will complement, Boeing’s existing fabrication and assembly site in Salt Lake City. The close proximity of the two facilities is expected to improve efficiency as stabilizer components move from fabrication to assembly stages.
“The site we’ve chosen is an ideal location to add composite manufacturing capability focused on Boeing’s key business strategies,” says Ross R. Bogue, VP and general manager of Boeing Fabrication. “This new facility will provide a real competitive advantage in our supply chain by expanding our internal composite capabilities.”

Boeing has retained the services of Tacoma, Wash.-based Sitts & Hill Engineers Inc. to design the factory space. M. Torres Disenos Industriales SA (MTorres, Pamplona, Spain) will supply automated contour tape laying machines (CTLMs). Although design and construction activities are expected to continue for two years, Boeing Salt Lake director Craig Trewet says, “Hiring will begin immediately. We’ll begin by hiring project managers and engineers and will then be filling production positions over the next several quarters.”

The move came at a time when Boeing faced temporary grounding of all 787 Dreamliner aircraft by the U.S. Federal Aviation Admin. (FAA) while an investigation proceeds into two fires involving the craft’s lithium-ion battery packs. On Jan. 16, Boeing chairman, president and CEO Jim McNerney issued the following statement, after the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive (AD) that requires U.S. 787 operators to temporarily cease operations and recommends that other regulatory agencies follow suit: “The safety of passengers and crew members who fly aboard Boeing airplanes is our highest priority. Boeing is committed to supporting the FAA and finding answers as quickly as possible. The company is working around the clock with its customers and the various regulatory and investigative authorities. We will make available the entire resources of The Boeing Co. to assist.”

McNerney added that the company is confident the 787 is safe and that Boeing stands behind its overall integrity: “We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the traveling public of the 787’s safety and to return the airplanes to service. Boeing deeply regrets the impact that recent events have had on the operating schedules of our customers and the inconvenience to them and their passengers.” He affirmed on Jan. 30 that, the grounding notwithstanding, 787 production would proceed apace, with Boeing still on track to produce 60 planes this year.

This is not the first time the safety of lithium-based batteries in aircraft has been called into question — reportedly, there have been more than 20 previous incidents. On Oct. 7, 2011, for example, the FAA issued an emergency AD for Cessna 525 (Citation jet) airplanes, prompted by a report of a battery fire that resulted after an energized ground power unit was connected to one of the affected airplanes equipped with a lithium-ion main aircraft battery. This condition could result in an aircraft fire, said the FAA at that time. The solution in the Cessna case was to replace lithium-ion main aircraft batteries with NiCad or lead-acid batteries, a solution that would add significant weight to the fuel-efficient Dreamliner. On Jan. 25 the Seattle Times revealed that during lithium-ion battery testing in 2006 at a Boeing supplier involved in the 787’s battery system, a battery exploded and burned the supplier’s main buildings to the ground.