Investment analysts like what they see at Boeing’s North Charleston plant

Investment analysts like what they see at Boeing’s North Charleston plant


‘Charleston Doing its Part on 787 Ramp,” Credit Suisse declared.

“Southern Comfort Drives our (Stock Price Target) to $118; Reiterate Buy,” Citigroup opened its note to investors.

Jefferies & Co. stated, “2.6 Million Square Feet Make a Big Difference.”

Those were some of the reactions from Wall Street analysts after visiting the Lowcountry for Boeing’s annual investor conference two weeks ago. After more than a year of hearing company executives tout the progress of the North Charleston 787 Dreamliner plant, the financial experts who cover the company finally got to see it for themselves.

As the headlines of the resulting research notes would suggest, they liked what they saw and heard.

The analysts bought the good-news message Boeing has been selling. And based on the apparent health of the local factory complex and other encouraging updates, many advised their clients to buy shares of Boeing.

In making its recommendation, the Goldman Sachs team wrote: “Charleston looked great.”

“The facility has been completely transformed and is in excellent condition and well managed,” the analysts, led by Noah Poponak, wrote in a May 22 note. They added that it “has a lot of upside to total production.”

Howard Rubel of Jefferies said the plant eventually could contribute 15 percent of Boeing Commercial Airplanes’ revenue, which was $49.1 billion last year.

“It might be only 3 percent of Boeing’s property and 6 percent of Commercial Airplanes’s floor space today, but the 2.6 million square foot plant and the 6,000 employees in North Charleston … are creating a positive difference for the company,” Rubel wrote.


Fresh insights
The Post and Courier sought the analyst reports and received 11. They confirmed much of what Boeing already has made public or has been speculated previously, from the maturation of the aft- and midbody factories in North Charleston to Boeing South Carolina’s huge growth potential. 

But the notes also included fresh insight into the local plant at an opportune time. The experts weighed in a month after South Carolina approved a $120 million bill to help Boeing’s “Phase Two” expansion and less than a month before the biggest aerospace event of the year, the Paris Air Show, where the company is expected to formally launch the 787-10X double-stretch Dreamliner.

Among the insights:

The local final assembly factory is scheduled to be making three 787s per month by the end of 2013, the highest rate announced so far, but already has machinery in place to make five per month.

The aft- and midbody factories have shipped their first 787-9 extended Dreamliner fuselage sections to the West Coast 787 plant in Everett, Wash., and more are in the works.

Analysts believe Boeing could be making 12, 14, or even 16 787s per month by 2017, with the North Charleston final assembly line contributing seven of those.

And one analyst estimated the overall cost per hour in North Charleston is 30 percent to 40 percent lower than what the company pays its 787 workers in Everett.


Once the “bottlenecks” of the 787 program, the aft- and midbody factories are producing their pieces for every 787 at a rate of seven per month, analysts said. That’s a vast improvement from when Boeing bought the plants from Vought Aircraft and Alenia Aeronautica in 2009. 

Most investors who were in town for the conference had never toured the North Charleston campus. For Deutsche Bank, it was that team’s second visit in about a year, and they reported they were “happy to see” two prior production snags had been addressed since their last tour.

Rubel of Jefferies agreed, saying “new processes have enabled the company to get ahead of the next rate increase.”

“The company has built a bit of a buffer, eliminating a pinch point in production,” he wrote.

Both Rubel’s report and the Credit Suisse note offered additional up-to-the-week details about where the component factories stand.

For example, Rubel and Credit Suisse’s Robert Spingarn said the first aft fueslages for the longer 787-9 recently were completed and were to be shipped to Everett for final assembly. Spingarn also said 787-9 final assembly will begin in North Charleston next year. A Boeing spokeswoman declined to comment on the analysts’ comments but confirmed the 787-9 parts are now in Everett.

The Credit Suisse report also noted Boeing South Carolina is saving time and money by building some parts outside of the plane instead of inside before installing them, “reducing costs and speeding flow times.”


Quite a production
In final assembly, there was some disagreement about what rate the team is turning out finished jets. Boeing generally doesn’t break down the production rate between its plants in North Charleston and Everett. 

According to Credit Suisse, Charleston is now producing 787s at a rate of one a month and will ramp up to 1.7 per month this summer; Goldman Sachs put the rate at “slightly less” than two; and the Jefferies’ report, published May 23, said, “today it’s beginning to produce two B787s per month.”

Rubel noted major savings in final assembly, saying workers recently installed a wing so perfectly “that it saved 150 pounds in weight.”

“This efficient assembly process underscores the potential of the company’s South Carolina operation,” he said.

While Boeing’s highest announced production goal is 10 per month by year’s end, with three coming from North Charleston, more than one analyst noted the local final assembly plant can handle more.

“Charleston final production is tooled for 5/month with floor space for 7/month,” according to the UBS team led by David Strauss.

Ken Herbert of Imperial Capital predicted the facility could get to seven per month in 2015.

“While difficult to quantify, we believe that the potential labor savings from increased volume out of South Carolina is substantial,” Herbert wrote in a May 24 report. “We believe that while the initial 787s coming out of the Charleston facility … are taking longer on a per unit basis, the overall cost per hour is 30 percent to 40 percent lower than what the company pays in Everett for 787 production.”

In an interview, Herbert said he based that estimate on factors such as wages, benefits and the cost of living.

Rubel of Jefferies said he assumes Boeing will be making 12 787s per month by 2017.

Herbert was even more optimistic. He wrote the company has the capacity to build 17 of the jets per month and could be planning to “ultimately hit 14 or 16” per month by 2017 if suppliers can keep up. He said later that he based those predictions on the size of the order backlog, the capacity of the two final assembly plants and the “desire by the company to maximize deliveries of the aircraft in as timely a manner as possible.”

Credit Suisse agreed there is an “upside” to Boeing’s stated production goals, but it added that going beyond 10 per month “would be more challenging in the near-term given space constraints” and the need for a second autoclave, or high-heat oven, to cure composite fuselage sections.


Parallel plant
Boeing already is expanding its aft-body, midbody and paint facilities, as well as upfitting offices in the final assembly building. The analysts also cited Boeing’s pending purchase of some 320 acres across International Boulevard from its factories as the basis for more growth. 

Herbert predicted Boeing eventually will make more than seven 787s per month in North Charleston and that “the Charleston facility is gearing up for much more than just the 787.” He did not elaborate.

Asked in April if Boeing South Carolina was on track to become the East Coast version of the Everett operation, plant boss Jack Jones said, “You’ll never mirror Everett.”

The analysts weren’t so coy. Doug Harned of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. put it plainly: “The Charleston facility is being set up as a parallel operation to the Everett facility.”

As if on cue, Boeing announced Friday it’s establishing new centers for commercial aircraft engineering and propulsion at its up-and-coming South Carolina campus.