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Originally published Saturday, June 18, 2011 at 3:31 PM

Boeing exec: Charleston 787 plant could match Everett someday

Boeing supply-chain chief Ray Conner is bullish about the future of the second 787 Dreamliner assembly site in North Charleston, S.C.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Ray Conner, the senior executive in charge of Boeing's supply chain, is bullish about the future of the second 787 Dreamliner assembly site in North Charleston, S.C.

Charleston will initially build only the first version of the Dreamliner, the 787-8, but ultimately it will be able to build the 787-9 as well, Conner said in a briefing in advance of the Paris Air Show, which begins Monday.

He said Charleston eventually could ramp up to match the seven jets a month planned for the Everett 787 line.

And though Boeing has copied in South Carolina many of the efficiency measures developed on the Everett assembly line, Conner said Boeing Charleston offers more production flexibility because of the absence of a union.

Conner's boss, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Jim Albaugh, recently said the Puget Sound region needn't feel threatened by Boeing's new aircraft fabrication and assembly complex in South Carolina because there is plenty of work for both sites.

But the Machinists union doesn't view Boeing's plan for the nonunion plant in Charleston with such equanimity. And it'll find little comfort in Conner's remarks.

Conner laid out plans for a powerful manufacturing location that will be equipped to significantly step up production in the event of any disruption here.

Conner said only "a little bit of work" would be needed to increase the potential capacity in Charleston to seven jets a month.

"If something was to happen, we could take capacity higher there," he said.

He was answering a what-if question about an earthquake hitting the Everett plant, but on everyone's mind is the more likely possibility of a labor strike.

Since 1989 Boeing has been hit with five major strikes in its Puget Sound factories, four by the Machinist union and one by its engineering union.

The South Carolina site starts out decidedly second fiddle, initially set to ramp up to just three Dreamliners a month by the end of 2013, compared with the planned seven a month in Everett.

Does Conner see the two sites as potentially more equal one day?

"We'll see," said Conner. "Our challenge is to build an airplane, deliver an airplane, get to one a month, get to two a month, get to three a month and then see what the world brings."

The prospect of doing more 787 assembly in Charleston drew a sharp response from International Association of Machinists (IAM) spokeswoman Connie Kelliher, who warned of pitting "Charleston workers against Puget Sound workers."

"This is certainly the first time there has been mention of the potential of seven planes a month in South Carolina," Kelliher said. "That seems to contain an elevated threat to the work force in Puget Sound."

Kelliher insisted Charleston can't match the experience of Boeing's work force here in the foreseeable future.

"Puget Sound has the highest productivity and least amount of risk of any potential site where Boeing could build airplanes," Kelliher said. "If Boeing is moving work away from Puget Sound simply to avoid the Machinists union, what a tragic mistake that is to not embrace your greatest asset."

Conner, 56, is vice president of supply-chain management and operations at Boeing. In 2008, Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney internally anointed Conner and fellow executive Pat Shanahan — who's in charge of airplane programs — as the two young leaders favored to one day run all of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

At a relaxed pre-Paris meeting with journalists in Renton in early June, Conner said the pending labor-law complaint over the Charleston final assembly line will "just have to take its course."

In April, the National Labor Relations Board charged that Boeing, when it chose Charleston in 2009 for its second 787 assembly line, was illegally retaliating for the last Machinists strike in 2008.

A preliminary hearing on the charge opened before an administrative judge in Seattle on June 14 and will continue for months.

Even as that case plays out in the courts, the Charleston final assembly facility is already taking shape.

Boeing starts loading its first airplane sections into position on the Charleston assembly line in August. The first completed Dreamliner from South Carolina is scheduled for delivery in the summer of 2012.

The assembly line is set up inside a building more than twice as wide as the Everett's 787 assembly bay. Conner said it could fit two 747 jumbo jets wingtip-to-wingtip.

In an open space unobstructed by support pillars, Boeing is setting up a U-shaped assembly line rather than the straight line used in Everett. It will also have a couple of extra assembly positions compared with the four in Everett.

This arrangement will enable suppliers to set up so-called feeder lines that deliver major parts such as landing gear and engines right to the assembly line.

Letting suppliers, i.e. non-Boeing workers, do work inside the factory is not permitted in Everett because of the Machinists union contract.

For Conner, the advantage is that the supplier gets to integrate and adjust these complex systems just before they go on the airplane, rather than paying Boeing workers to do that final step.

"It gives us a little more flexibility," Conner said.

Despite those changes to the assembly line, he said the Charleston 787 manufacturing process is modeled on lessons learned in Everett.

Conner said Boeing videotaped details of the entire assembly process in Everett and used that to develop a training program for hourly workers hired in Charleston, partly paid for by the state of South Carolina.

"Everett plowed that ground for us," he said. "We took it right out of here and copied it."

Conner also challenged any notion that the work force in Charleston is too inexperienced in aerospace work.

He said Boeing recruited from the many military bases in the region seeking Air Force and other military personnel with aviation experience. It also hired mechanics away from aircraft-maintenance operations in the South and enticed factory managers from the Puget Sound area to move to Charleston permanently.

"We didn't get all greenhorns," Conner said. "We've hired a good, solid group of people down there."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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