One of the great untold stories of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner concerns the types of fastening methods used to hold the composite sections in place. One of the beauties of the composite bodies is the elimination of thousands of aluminum rivets that added weight and drag. The number of fasteners in the Dreamliner is down 80 per cent from previous models. There are something like 1,500 aluminum sheets in one metal barrel, requiring close to 50,000 rivets. There are still lots of fasteners in the 787. And they have been the project’s Achilles heel to date. Thousands of temporary rivets (marked red) were used on the prototype. They all had to be exchanged for fasteners fit for flight. Boeing’s supply partner, Alcoa, could not meet demand due to downsized capacity. That was an inexcusable breakdown in supply chain communications. Capacity is now said to be catching up to demand. But what about the design challenges in fastening the sections? Are different types of fasteners used? Are they primarily titanium instead of aluminum? How secure is the supply of titanium for the enormous number of Dreamliners on order?
Boeing won’t talk. I submitted a request for an interview on these points and got this response from Boeing PR person Scott Lefeber: “I have reviewed this with our subject matter experts and they understand what you would like, but unfortunately it would be too much detail that would be considered proprietary.”
Boeing has gotten tons of great ink on the Dreamliner, including more than a small amount from Design News, which won first place in a national magazine competition for the quality of its coverage. Time and Newsweek took the next two spots.
And the Dreamliner is a great American technology story. In fact Boeing 787 Chief Project Engineer Tom Cogan was named Engineer of the Year by Design News.
But Boeing has controlled information on the Dreamliner in a way worthy at times of a Politburo. Suppliers are told not to talk, unless given explicit permission by Boeing. And Boeing officials may not be available to discuss even basic technology, such as the assembly systems on the Dreamliner. Proprietary technology? Or fear that more poor planning may be exposed?