In Kansas, where 787 Dreamliners are born (pictures)

Boeing's next-gen planes are assembled in Washington or South Carolina, but the front sections are made in Kansas. CNET Road Trip 2014 visits the aviation heartland to see the manufacturing process.

Daniel Terdiman
1 of 28 Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Barrel begun winding

WICHITA, Kan. -- If you want to see 787 Dreamliners be fully assembled, you have to go to either Everett, Wash., or North Charleston, S.C. But if you want to see how the front section of the next-gen airplanes are made, you have to travel to Kansas.

For decades, Boeing had a large presence in Wichita, but in 2005 the company decided to spin out its facility here as a private company. And that's how Spirit Aerosystems was born. Now, Spirit is involved in the manufacturing process for a number of major aircraft, including the Dreamliner, Boeing's 737, 777, and 747, as well as some of Airbus' airplanes.

As part of CNET Road Trip 2014, I visited Spirit in Wichita to see how the Dreamliner's front section comes to life.

Above, you can see what is known as a "barrel," the very beginning of a front section. The barrel is comprised of several smaller sections known as mandrels. Once the mandrels assembled, a giant machine methodically winds thousands of pounds of composite "slit tape" around the barrel, gradually forming the shape of the forward section.

Click here for my full story on the production of 787 Dreamliner front sections.

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Still being wrapped in composite material, the barrel is suspended between two sides of this giant blue tool. Once the wrapping is complete, the barrel will be placed in one of the world's largest autoclaves.

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Bag over the barrel

Before all the different mandrels are put in place, the incomplete barrel is wrapped in this "bag." Once the final mandrel is added, the bag will be removed.

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Mandrel with window impressions

A mandrel section already shows where the Dreamliner's windows will be cut out.

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Composite rolls

Most of Boeing's airplanes have traditionally been made with aluminum. But with the 787 Dreamliner, it began using composite materials. These are rolls of the composite tape that will be wrapped around a barrel.

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Winding the composite tape

A giant tool automatically applies the composite tape to the barrel.

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Autoclave empty

When it was built in the mid-2000s, this was the world's largest autoclave. Now, it's just inches shorter than the world's biggest.

When the Dreamliner barrels are ready, they are placed in here and "cooked" for about 10 hours. Spirit Aerosystems doesn't reveal the temperature or pressure that the barrels undergo.

Just to the left of the autoclave is the door, which is rolled into placed and locked prior to "cooking."

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Barrel in autoclave

In this photo, we see a Dreamliner barrel inside the autoclave -- though the cooking only happens when the door is locked in place.

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Out of the autoclave

When a barrel goes into the autoclave, it is black. When it comes out, it is this silver color. That makes it easy to tell if a Dreamliner barrel has been in the autoclave or not. When the barrel comes out, it's also entirely smooth, with nothing cut out.

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Window markings

The next step is to mark the various areas that must be cut out of the barrel, such as the windows and exit doors.

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Next, workers cut out the various windows, doors, and landing gear sections.

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Canted inside trim and drill

Here, we see a Dreamliner front section canted to one side as it sits in the trim and drill position. The front section can be rotated on its central axis any way that's necessary to allow workers the easiest access.

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Fastening pieces

A front section is suspended upside down as workers fasten various components to its structure to increase its strength. These components are generally aluminum or titanium and are only installed on the interior of the structure.

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Final assembly

In the final assembly area, Spirit works on installing systems in as many as eight Dreamliner front sections at a time, while also having two stations where the Dreamliners are powered-up for the first time.

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Fuselage empty

Until reaching final assembly, the Dreamliner front section is largely an empty cylinder.

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Lined up in final assembly

Dreamliner front sections lined up for installation of various systems.

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Cockpit windows

A look at the cockpit windows on a Dreamliner front section in final assembly.

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The nose of this Dreamliner front section is lifted so that workers can install a special radar and antenna package that is used to help the plane navigate and anticipate weather.

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Cockpit with much work to do

The cockpit of a Dreamliner that still needs a wide range of systems installed.

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Wide cockpit installation

A wider look at a Dreamliner cockpit in the process of having various systems installed.

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Fuselage mostly empty

The fuselage of this Dreamliner front section is still mostly empty, though some systems have been installed.

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Cockpit powered up

Even though this Dreamliner is still just a front section, it is powered up prior to shipping to Boeing. Many of the cockpit systems are tested as if the plane was complete. The aircraft doesn't know that it doesn't have wings or the rest of its body.

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Wider look

Another look at a powered-up Dreamliner cockpit.

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Nose up

The nose on this Dreamliner front section is lifted so that workers can install the radar and antenna package.

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Ready to ship

After everything has been done, it's time to send the Dreamliner front sections to Boeing. Here, two of them sit, ready to be loaded onto a Dreamlifter and then flown to Washington state or South Carolina.

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Loading onto Dreamlifter

A completed Dreamliner front section is seen being loaded onto the Dreamlifter, the special airplane Boeing built to fly the Dreamliner's major components to its factories in Washington state or South Carolina for final assembly.

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A look at the massive Dreamlifter.

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Dreamlifter off to Boeing

A Dreamlifter as it takes off on its way to Boeing.

Click here for my full story on the production of 787 Dreamliner front sections.

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