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Inside the factory of a key Boeing 737 supplier: NPR

The unfinished fuselage of a Boeing 737 at the Spirit AeroSystems factory in Wichita, Kan.

The unfinished fuselage of a Boeing 737 at the Spirit AeroSystems factory in Wichita, Kan.

Courtesy of /Spirit AeroSystems


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Courtesy of /Spirit AeroSystems

WICHITA — It takes more than 200,000 fasteners to hold a Boeing 737 together, and many of them are installed manually by Spirit AeroSystems mechanics.

“You can run your finger down and feel how smooth they are,” said master mechanic Tim Hamm, pointing to the metal skin of an unfinished fuselage. “And they must be.”

This sprawling factory on the southern edge of Wichita has been manufacturing the fuselage of the Boeing 737 since the 1960s, producing more than 12,000 of them – the best-selling commercial plane of all time.

But it has never faced greater scrutiny, as Spirit and Boeing work to rebuild the trust of federal regulators and the flying public after a door grab panel blew up a plane of Alaska Airlines in mid-flight earlier this year.

On Thursday, Boeing presented the Federal Aviation Administration with a detailed plan that promises to improve manufacturing quality at its own factories, as well as those of its suppliers.

During a tour of the Spirit factory in Wichita, field workers told NPR they were shocked and saddened by the door jam incident.

“It makes your heart sink,” Hamm said. “Everyone has family on these planes. We don’t want any incidents at all. We want the best possible quality from this place, and no defects. We don’t want anyone to get hurt. »

the legend goes here

This Wichita factory has been manufacturing the fuselage of the Boeing 737 since the 1960s.

Courtesy of /Spirit AreoSystems


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Courtesy of /Spirit AreoSystems

The pace of work has slowed down significantly

Hamm works in integration, where workers assemble different sections of the fuselage. It’s his job to supervise new employees and make sure these fasteners are installed correctly.

Unfinished fuselages float above us, suspended from the ceiling. Workers move around the ground on golf carts and cargo bikes. At one time, this factory produced more than 50 fuselages per month.

“We just do what we’re told,” Hamm said. “If there were 53 a month, we stayed and did them. We worked and achieved each one every day.

The pace slowed sharply in January after a door catch panel exploded from a 737 Max plane in mid-flight.

Federal investigators believe four key bolts were missing when the plane left Boeing’s factory in Renton, Washington, thousands of miles away. But investigators say that panel had to be reopened in order to repair damaged rivets installed here in Wichita.

Since then, the FAA has capped production of the 737 and Spirit is only producing about 30 fuselages per month.

“It will be a good thing for the company,” Hamm said.

There’s new pressure to make sure all the work is correct – before the fuselage is transferred to the next factory station, he said, reducing what people in the industry call itinerant work.

At the same time, Boeing added more inspectors in Wichita.

“We will only accept — they will only ship — a conforming fuselage,” CEO Dave Calhoun said in an interview with CNBC from the Boeing factory in April. “Which means it comes in that gate in near-perfect condition, and then it goes through that factory on a significantly reduced cycle.”

the legend goes here

At one point, Spirit was building more than 50 fuselages for the 737 per month in Wichita. Now the pace has slowed to around 30.

Courtesy of /Spirit AeroSystems


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Courtesy of /Spirit AeroSystems

Two companies have a complicated history

Executives at Boeing and Spirit both say the number of defects has declined since January, but that doesn’t explain why so many were escaping from the factory. The answer could be linked to the long and turbulent history between the two companies.

“To be honest with you, it’s really hard to know where one begins and the other ends,” said Larry Straub, a management professor at Newman University in Wichita.

The 737 factory in Wichita was formerly owned by Boeing, until the company sold it in 2005 and became part of Spirit. Since then, the two companies have clashed, with Boeing pushing its supplier to cut corners. Straub said his MBA students at Spirit are feeling the pressure.

“There’s still enormous, enormous cost pressure,” Straub said. “There’s a point where it’s healthy, but there’s a point where it can break down and become unhealthy.”

NPR spoke with nine former and current Spirit employees for this story. Some told us that quality at the Wichita plant had been declining for years as financial experts replaced engineers in the management ranks.

Many agreed that part of the blame lay with Boeing, which constantly pushed Spirit to keep costs low and production rates high.

Today, Boeing has changed direction. It is in talks to buy Spirit and reintegrate the two companies. Spirit CEO Patrick Shanahan says a lot has already changed.

“We’ve made incremental functional changes in how we inspect, where we inspect and how we do it together,” Shanahan said during a May earnings conference call. “The short-term benefits are: We have seen an improvement in quality of around 15%. »

Shanahan took over at Spirit last year after a series of embarrassing and costly quality problems. “I think a lot of the hard work is done,” he said during the earnings conference call.

legend

An unfinished 737 fuselage hangs from the ceiling at the Spirit factory in Wichita.

Courtesy of /Spirit AeroSystems


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Courtesy of /Spirit AeroSystems

Spirit lost ‘invaluable’ years of employee experience

But some former and current Spirit employees say there is still much work to be done. They say the company lost experienced workers to layoffs and early retirements when production was slowed after two fatal 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019, and then again during the COVID pandemic.

“Definitely. A lot of people I work with have taken the buyout,” said Karmen Potts, who has worked at the 737 plant in Wichita for 28 years.

“That experience working in the airplane business can’t be replaced,” Potts said in an interview. “I feel like the new people coming in are going to have to step up by staying away from their phones and being careful about what they’re doing.”

“I feel the effects of a lot of people leaving Spirit and having this experience,” she said. “It’s priceless.”

Outside the Spirit factory in Wichita, Kansas.

Spirit AeroSystems headquarters in Wichita, Kan.

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Joel Rose/NPR

Still, Potts is proud of the work her team has done and says she doesn’t see many flaws on their fuselage section.

“I feel like we’re doing it the right way,” Potts said. “I feel like our inspectors are really good. And if there’s a mistake, you know, we go back, we fix it.

Lately, Potts says, a lot of people at this plant are nervous. They don’t know what will happen if Boeing buys the factory, and they worry about the slowdown in the pace of production.

Spirit announced a few weeks ago that it would cut more than 400 hourly employees because there simply isn’t as much work to do. Potts says she’s more than ready for the pace of work at this plant to pick up again.

“We love the work,” she says with a laugh. “That means we could stay employed.”

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