MADE IN SHEFFIELD: Boeing AND the man behind its new £40m factory

Facilities manager Marie Marriott and James Needham at the Boeing Sheffield factory
Facilities manager Marie Marriott and James Needham at the Boeing Sheffield factory

A Sheffield graduate has spoken of his pride at launching aerospace giant Boeing’s first factory in Europe.

James Needham, aged 37, said leading the 18-month project, which culminates in a grand opening later this month, was a dream job.

Apprentice machinists at Boeing Sheffield, Rhys Lister, Thomas Pledger and Joshua Thomson. with a five axis horizontal CNC milling machine

Apprentice machinists at Boeing Sheffield, Rhys Lister, Thomas Pledger and Joshua Thomson. with a five axis horizontal CNC milling machine

But it came with the responsibility of being the sole supplier of parts to a production line building up to three $100m planes a day.

Boeing has invested £40m in a new factory on Sheffield Business Park near Catcliffe. It employs 52, including 25 apprentices, and will make 10,000 parts a month at full production next year.

Overseeing construction, hiring staff and and establishing hi-tech research, design and manufacturing processes had been “my Everest,” he said.

“The fact that 147 components on those planes will be made in Sheffield gives me a huge sense of pride. I’m incredibly lucky, I get to do my dream job every day.

Boeing 767-300

Boeing 767-300

“But the ticket you are buying for next year’s summer holiday is on a plane that doesn’t exist yet. There’s no way there can be delays..

“I would like to be further along, but we are in good shape. We have already reached our biggest milestone, producing our first parts for 737s and 767s."

“There’s nothing wrong with me asking for help from Boeing’s vast support network. But failing to deliver is not an option.”

Mr Needham graduated with a degree in materials engineering from Sheffield Hallam University. He spent 12 years working for Sheffield University’s Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Waverley before landing the job.

James Needham on the shop floor, a third of the 40m cost is on machine tools.

James Needham on the shop floor, a third of the 40m cost is on machine tools.

In that time he worked on projects with Boeing and saw the start of research into the best place to build a new factory.

Sheffield was picked for its expertise in metals, talent, supply chain, the AMRC and its apprentice Training Centre, he said.

“There are probably many places with some of those things, but only Sheffield had them all.”

It also has potential.

Boeing Sheffield facilities manager Marie Marriott with an automated loading system for machine tools.

Boeing Sheffield facilities manager Marie Marriott with an automated loading system for machine tools.

He added: “It’s the innovation and partnership with providers that will keep high value manufacturing jobs in Sheffield - and bring them to Sheffield.

“I know the number of jobs is not high but it’s the potential of what this place could be. Boeing has been in the UK for 80 years and has worked with the AMRC for 20. It has an aspiration to grow from $100bn to a $200bn business, with much of that growth outside the US. Sheffield is at the front of the queue for work that will be placed in Europe.

“I don’t know how fast this normally happens, but the plan is the next factory will happen faster. Boeing Sheffield is the blueprint.”

Working with steel runs in the family. Mr Needham’s dad and granddad worked at the Steel, Peech and Tozer steelworks on Sheffield Road, Rotherham. He attended King Ecgbert in Dore and his first graduate job was at Outokumpu in Sheffield, which is opposite the new factory.

He has already joined Boeing up to the prestigious Made in Sheffield club and the logo will be on one of three flags - including Boeing’s and a Union Jack - to fly outside the factory.

It was part of drive to raise the profile of manufacturing, he said.

A  Boeing 777 aircraft rolls out of the factory in Everett, Wash.

A Boeing 777 aircraft rolls out of the factory in Everett, Wash.

“This place is not top secret and by working with local schools I hope to get more young people into engineering and show them it’s not dark, dirty and dangerous.

“The future of manufacturing depends on us making it an attractive proposition, with factories that look more like Tesla showrooms than coal mines.”

The new facility will feature 22 hi-tech machine tools - including five-axis horizontal CNC milling machines - that can run 24-hours-a-day. They were a third of the £40m cost.

Local firms set to supply the factory include Liberty Speciality Steels, alloys and machining firm Maher and tooling companies Metlase and Technicut.

Boeing was proving to be a good employer, albeit with a different culture, Mr Needham added.

Each day starts with ‘stand up meetings’ where staff stand in a circle and state: “I’m checked in, safe and incident and injury free and ready to go to work.”

It is like a school register, he says, but safety is paramount and it gives anyone not on top form the chance to speak up.

“I need my operations staff to have the right attitude, motivation and ability to work to the Boeing Production System, also known as the ‘Boeing behaviours’.

“I really love working for a US company, and Boeing in particular. They have a ‘can do’ attitude which may seem cheesey and doesn’t always sit well with the British nature. But they have a fantastic strategy and a strong culture of leadership.

“As someone who grew up with aeroplanes on my bedroom wall and went to air cadets, to think we are producing parts for aircraft is incredible.”