Big questions hang over Global Aeronautica

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Since it opened at the end of 2006, Global Aeronautica has been at the centre of one of the most high-profile commercial aircraft programmes in the world.

Global Aeronautica, the North Charleston, South Carolina-based joint venture between Boeing and Alenia Aeronautica, has seen its fortunes tied to the US airframer's struggle with the 787.

boeing 787 
 © Boeing

 

The greenfield site has had a troubled beginning, with manufacturing quality issues and an inexperienced workforce causing a kink in Boeing's 787 supply chain.

Global Aeronautica was among those suppliers unable to meet the steep 787 ramp-up expectations set by the airframer, after extensive design changes nearly crippled the dispersed global supply chain.

Boeing acquired Vought's 50% share of Global Aeronautica in 2008 to provide direct manufacturing oversight at the facility, and has steadily increased its role in the day-to-day operation of the site.

 global-aeronautica-at-work
 © Global Aeronautica

In June, Giuseppe Giordo, chief executive of Alenia Aeronautica and co-chief operating officer of Finnemeccanica, confirmed that Global Aeronautica's flow rate for the Italian and Japanese composite structures passing through the North Charleston factory stood at 300 days for each unit. Giordo cited the "travelled work" from suppliers as the major cause of this slow rate.

"We've never really seen [Global Aeronautica's] full capability, because the work that's travelled into them, the amount of design changes we've asked them to incorporate, I think has masked what their potential is," said Pat Shanahan, vice-president of airplane programmes for Boeing, at the Paris air show in June.

Now Boeing has acquired Vought's operations, programme sources suggest the airframer will take over the remaining 50% share of Global Aeronautica from Alenia as it establishes a 787 East Coast final assembly site.

"It is Finmeccanica's policy not to comment on any potential and/or ongoing industrial negotiations," says Alenia.

An acquisition of the remaining 50% would, say industry analysts, provide Boeing with complete control and oversight of its North Charleston base. Additionally, as part of the terms of the $1 billion Vought acquisition, the leaseholder of the land that the new Boeing Charleston facility and Global Aeronautica sits on is now controlled by Boeing.

Even as the possibility of a full Boeing buyout is discussed, Global Aeronautica is preparing for an expansion of its own. The site has struggled with the ramp-up, but efforts to integrate each 787 centre fuselage have gained a smoother rhythm as Boeing has begun assembling production standard aircraft.

The flow rate has fallen from 300 days to roughly 230 days for each centre fuselage as Boeing has accelerated its ramp-up with the regular delivery of production-standard 787s.

Founded as a joint venture between Alenia Aeronautica and Vought Aircraft Industries, it has acted as a manufacturing node and occasional "bottleneck" for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner programme.

For Alenia, Global Aeronautica provided a strategic entry into the US market with an industrial presence on a high-profile commercial aircraft programme.

The 35,930m2 (387,000ft2) facility is responsible for the integration of four major structural sections of the 787's centre fuselage. The aircraft's forward composite barrel and centre wing box are flown from Nagoya, Japan, where they are manufactured by Kawasaki and Fuji Heavy Industries, respectively.

The remaining two sections, the aft barrel and bonnet structures are manufactured in Grottaglie, Italy by Alenia. The four sections are integrated through twin assembly lines - designated Line A & B - each with five cells in which the structures are joined, stuffed with a range of aircraft systems and then tested on site, followed by painting and shipment for final assembly to Boeing in Everett.

Global Aeronautica was the manifestation of Boeing's global 787 outsourcing strategy whereby the lion's share of structural integration would take place before the final assembly operations, in which already-stuffed sections from around the world would be joined.

Much of the executive leadership of Global Aeronautica is dominated by Boeing personnel, with the exception of the joint venture's chief financial officer.

Of the 1,600 people employed at Global Aeronautica, only 25 or so are direct staff from Alenia providing on-site engineering support, 1,000 are direct Global Aeronautica staff, and the remainder is made up of Boeing and contract labour.

On 7 July Boeing revealed that it would acquire the Vought facility that manufactures aft fuselages for the 787, next door to Global Aeronautica, bringing the company's ownership of the Charleston campus to 75% and setting the stage for Boeing's establishment of the second 787 assembly line.

Programme sources indicate that a decision on a third assembly line inside Global Aeronautica, known as Line C, is expected this month.

As of 1 November, Global Aeronautica has delivered 12 centre fuselages to Boeing for the six production and six 787 test aircraft. It is expected to deliver the first centre fuselage ahead of the first-quarter 2012 delivery target for the first locally built 787.