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Boeing Live Event Coverage

Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates covers top industry events to bring you the latest news, highlighting how it impacts Boeing and its competitors.

July 10, 2012 at 4:00 AM

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Spirit CEO: Wichita is ready to pump out 737 fuselages to feed Renton assembly plant

Could Spirit Aerosystems of Wichita, Kan., possibly send as many as 60 fuselages a month on the trains to Boeing's 737 final assembly plant in Renton?

"Sure, we can," said Spirit CEO Jeff Turner in an interview Tuesday at the Farnborough Air Show.Jeff Turner.jpg

As Boeing gears up in Renton, preparing to increase 737 production from 35 jets per month now to 38 this fall and 42 in early 2014, Spirit is the key supplier they need to feed their Renton production lines.

Freight trains carrying complete 737 fuselages from Spirit run from Wichita, through Stevens Pass, along the Seattle waterfront and into the Renton factory.

Having said that 60 per month -- an astounding rate that Boeing is talking about as the potential high water mark of production -- is achievable, Turner (right, Spirit photo) is quick to add that though his company sees a clear path to the scheduled increase to 42 per month, going as high as 60 would take a lot of preparation and investment.

"The question is when, and how much does it cost to do that," said Turner. "What you don't want is to spend the money to run at high rates and then not run at high rates."

But if Boeing pulls the trigger to go beyond 42, Spirit will accommodate, Turner said.

In the wake of the April tornado that badly damaged the Wichita facility and stopped production for a few days, Spirit hit over 40 deliveries a month in order to recover.

Turner said going above 42 is a matter of analyzing what's needed in terms of tools, floor space and increased input from his supply chain, then putting it all in place.

He said that could mean adding a fifth riveting machine, or another tooling fixture where pieces of the fuselage come together.

And if need be, he may expand the facility. Spirit's main assembly building currently contains work on Boeing's full line-up of jets: 737s, 747s, 767s, and 777s.

"If we need to expand the 737, we can replicate the 737 line in a new building or move some of the other production," Turner said.

And unlike Renton, there's no squeeze on available space.

"There is a lot of room in Kansas," Turner said.

He said the introduction of Boeing's forthcoming 737 MAX derivative will add some complexity to the ramp up.

Boeing will give his team the new load requirements that flow from the new jet's heavier engines and heavier wing, loads that flow into the fuselage.

His team has to do the detailed design, deciding which parts need to be strengthened to support the heavier loads. They have already begun preliminary work on that, even though the MAX won't be built until 2015.

Turner said his workforce proved its mettle keeping production going with barely a blip after the tornado.

He has the luxury of long-term labor piece and good relations with the union. Spirit negotiated a path-breaking 10-year agreement with the Machinists union in 2010 (a year ahead of Boeing's breakthrough deal with the IAM) and Turner said that relationship is still "going just great."

In April, the workforce at the new Spirit plant in Kinston, N.C., which makes carbon fiber composite fuselage panels for the Airbus A350, voted to join the IAM.

Turner has no problem with that.

"Part of our agreement with the union is we don't view them as an enemy to the business," Turner said. "If our employees choose to be represented, we're willing to work with the representative they choose."