ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Members of Boeing's biggest union are headed back to work tonight. That ends a two-month strike that shut down three of the company's plants. Boeing's profits sank. The stock price plummeted.
And the airplane maker had to delay its crown jewel, the 787 Dreamliner. Now, Boeing's rival, Airbus, is building its own dream airliner, the A380. Production on that huge plane almost got derailed, too, when one small businessman in Washington state had a brush with the global economy. From member station KPLU, reporter Chana Joffe-Walt has the story.
CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Last year, six pieces of metal almost cost Ben Hempstead half a million dollars, the biggest job of his life, and held up the largest plane in history. But let's start with an introduction. Ben's a mechanical engineer in this place called Electroimpact in Mukilteo, Washington near Seattle. And here is Ben speaking in his favorite language, aerospace geek speak.
Mr. BEN HEMPSTEAD (Mechanical Engineer, Electroimpact): And now, we're talking about the A380 wing riveter again, this big multiaxis machine tool that produces wing panels for the wide-body, double-decker jet.
JOFFE-WALT: That's Ben talking about a tool that builds wings for planes. What I loved immediately about Ben is he can say things like that, the multiaxis machine tool, and then describe the same piece of equipment this way.
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: It kind of looks like a hungry person sitting down on Thanksgiving dinner, picking up a drumstick, and just going to town on it.
JOFFE-WALT: Ben is talking about a huge machine here. It's shaped sort of like an enormous hanging claw, hunkers down over all the wing pieces, and goes to town on them with drills and rivets. Those little circles on the wing you can see from your window seat, that's Ben. Now, the whole fiasco last year all started right in the middle of the most exciting project of Ben's career, the Airbus 380.
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: It's just gigantic. That's the number-one cool thing. It's so big. It has more bigger of everything, which is always cool to engineers.
JOFFE-WALT: Ben got to design and build a new machine, just like that clawish one before, special for the 380. It's the kind of project that has engineers basically skipping to work. And Ben started making calls to his suppliers. This is a routine part of his job, ordering steel that comes from South Korea or China, wiring from Finland, measuring instruments from Israel. And then Ben called the Germans for his bearings.
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: They said, you can't have those bearings for 18 months. Now, what? It used to be two to four months. And they said, well, the best we can do for you is 13 to 18 months.
JOFFE-WALT: The tool was due to Airbus in six months, and Ben says...
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: These are the only people that make this thing.
JOFFE-WALT: Let's just be clear. We're not talking about those tiny little ball bearings on your skateboard. These are large, larger than a dinner plate, shaped sort of like a frisbee, and they're custom- made. But the Germans aren't actually the only people who make them. Some colleagues reminded Ben of those sales guys who come by every Wednesday with doughnuts and product catalogs. They had been pushing this new bearings manufacturer in Japan. Ben had always ignored them. The Germans always had those bearings. But now, things were different. So, Wednesday morning...
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: Hey, doughnut guy. We need to talk. Well, their eyes light up. They go back to Japan. They said, we would love to supply you those bearings, and we're going to charge you five times what they're worth because we can. You're between a rock and a hard place. And...
JOFFE-WALT: And what's the range that we're talking here anyhow?
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: We're talking about a part that should cost $20,000. We're talking about $100,000.
JOFFE-WALT: $100,000 per bearing?
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: Per bearing. Then you go back to Germany and say, can we try harder? And we were at a stalemate.
JOFFE-WALT: Ben started imagining his face on a cover of Newsweek, the guy who held up the biggest plane ever.
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: It's not like a whole crate of bearings or a whole building full of bearings. These are six pieces. Six parts.
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: Six parts.
JOFFE-WALT: Six bearings is what this whole thing is about.
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: Six individual parts. Yes, they would all fit in the trunk of your car, the whole order, all of this rigormarole. If we don't get these bearings in time, we can't deliver these machines in time. If we can't deliver the machines in time, Airbus can't build the wings fast enough to meet the ramp uprate, deliver the aircraft to the next customer. So, therefore, going back to the being on the front cover of Newsweek, I don't want to do that. Got to find some bearings.
JOFFE-WALT: Ben had been working in aerospace for 10 years, his colleagues for decades. And every time anyone needed bearings, just call up the Germans, and they're on their way. So, why now? Why all of a sudden was he being shoved in the back of an 18 month queue? Well, to find the answer to this, I had to call around the world, hire interpreters, read lots of market reports on the bearings industry, and then send my friend, Zoe(ph), on this crazy mission to a very specific spot, outside Shanghai, China.
Ms. ZOE: OK, Chana, here is the sound of one of the wind turbines. You might get if from a couple angles. The first thing angle, you can't hear anything, but it is the sound.
JOFFE-WALT: Zoe is standing under a towering white wind turbine there. It's got these huge blades that are longer than she is spinning quietly in the wind, spinning with the help of bearings, exactly the same kind of bearings Ben uses. Here's what happened. Right before Ben started scavenging the world for his six bearings, China was thinking, you know what we need? More energy, how about wind power? And because China is where it is right now, developing into a giant and all, it doesn't just set up a couple of puny wind farms, no. China becomes the fifth-largest wind producer in the world.
Ms. ZOE: Now, we're in this, like, seriously, in the middle of the wind farm. But it's really hot and really beautiful with a big beautiful lake.
JOFFE-WALT: Zoe said this place felt huge, too huge to actually get a sense of how huge. Every turbine here probably uses about four bearings. The demand for bearings in China has tripled in the last five years. So, where Ben used to be one of the only people in the world who wanted these bearings, all of a sudden, he's competing with the nation of China, facing a problem he never faced before.
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: I've got to find some bearings.
JOFFE-WALT: Ben actually got incredibly lucky. The Germans called at the last minute with a cancellation, and he has now recovered from the panic of those months. He's on to the next project and is, again, in need of bearings in the next 12 months.
Mr. HEMPSTEAD: I called my supplier the other day, and I said, how are we looking for this next project? And they're saying 13 to 18 months. Except this time, it's not a surprise. I see no improvement in the lead time, and it looks like that's kind of that status quo for the time being.
JOFFE-WALT: Meaning, Ben Hempstead in Mukilteo, Washington will probably be tied to this place halfway around the world from now on. For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.
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