April 29, 2013
Boeing says it is “in the middle of a process” that might take at least part of the assembly of its most successful widebody twin-engine aircraft out of Washington state to a South Carolina plant where it recently pledged $1 billion in infrastructure investments and 2,000 new jobs.
“We have figured out by-and-large what airplane to build,” Chairman James McNerney said of the proposed Boeing 777X, an update of the 17-year-old family that dominates large widebody sales. But the company continues “to evaluate [which] design and production locations” to assign to it, he says.
His comments during a first-quarter earnings call are further evidence of how willing Boeing is to shake up its standard procedures. The company's expansion pledge at its North Charleston, S.C., campus covers the next eight years. Its facility are currently the sole integration factory for the 787's composite aft and center fuselage and a secondary site for final assembly. But the pledge has not been accompanied by any specifics.
Instead McNerney emphasized the company's confidence in using a light-weight composite wing and more fuel-efficient General Electric GE9X engines for the 777X as Boeing girds for the challenge posed by the Airbus A350-1000, which is due in three years.
While praising the main 777 factory in Everett, Wash., for the smooth ramp-up to an 8.3-aircraft-per-month build rate, McNerney made clear that Everett is not the only option on the table for the increased workload that will flow from developing and producing the 777X and its major assemblies. “The bigger a composite wing gets, the more efficient it becomes—and this is a big composite wing,” he says. But Boeing still “has to think through” where the wing is to be developed and produced. Over the next few months the company will talk “in a granular way what makes sense” about the program's work placement.
North Charleston already is moving beyond its initial 787-only role. It has been selected to produce inner composite linings for the 737 MAX's engine nacelle, part of a broader move to increase in-house component production. Last week, Boeing said it will expand its Winnipeg, Manitoba, facility to 665,000 sq. ft.—a 22% gain—mainly to construct one-piece composite acoustic inner barrels for the MAX's new nacelle inlet. Winnipeg is one of Boeing's composite structures specialists that normally ships to Seattle, but in this case it is a supplier to North Charleston.
Workloads are influencing the launch timing of Boeing's other big program expansion, as well. There is significant customer interest in the 787-10X, which will be launched this year, he says. “The cost is not high [and] the technical risk is not high” to undertake the fuselage stretch that will provide seating for about 300 passengers. “I think we are feeling very good about all of those issues.”