Boeing officials confirmed today that a fastener shortage and problems with flight control software have pushed “first flight” of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to sometime between mid-November and mid-December. This is the second delay for the plane, but neither will push out the commercial deliveries slated for next May, according to Mike Bair, GM and VP of the 787 program. The original targets for first flight was August and then late summer with the proviso that it'll fly only when it's ready.
However, Boeing is just about out of “buffer” space that was built into the program to compensate for delays. Given their newness, certification for the Rolls engines will be more rigorous than that for the GE engines. Six planes, four with Rolls engines and two with GE engines, will be used in the flight testing.
“We’re within the window we initially planned, [but] it’s really tight. It’s getting tighter and tighter as we push into the fall,” Bair said. Some time will be made through more aggressive testing, he said. “[We’ll] essentially [do] higher flight rates and run flights test in more disciplined 24x7 approach.”
Bair was pummeled by questions from analysts wondering what the financial impact is and whether there would be more delays. A one- to three-month delay in deliveries next year would have “minimal” financial impact,” said Boeing executive VP Scott Carson. Bair peppered his presentation and answers with phrases like “we’re confident” that more delays were not expected. Then he backtracked slightly.
“[The 787] is a really complicated puzzle. We’ll deliver the airplane on time. We still see a way to make that happen. We have been all along telling the world what exactly is going on with the program. It’s going to continue to be a voyage of discovery. We’ll get through this one and get through flight test program.”
However, he said the design of the aircraft is set and that the delays spring from unanticipated assembly work and software programming. As a result of the fastener shortage, assembly had to be “re-sequenced” resulting in more “traveled work,” which is partner work pushed further into the supply chain. “The fundamental issue we are dealing with is that the production system has not and was not designed to deal with traveled work.”
Boeing is working to minimize traveled work, but 787 production won’t be “normal” until 10 to 20 planes are built, Bair said. Boeing is working with fastener supplier Alcoa and “prioritizing” which fasteners are needed and when.
“The fasteners … jumbled up way the [first] airplane got put together. [We spend] a lot of time making sure all the paperwork matches how the airplane is going together,” he said, adding that the assembly of the aircraft has to be documented to make sure it matches the specified design and engineering. The fastener issue caused “build-arounds” and the manual documenting of the work which deviated from the set production plan.
He said that the first airplane rolled out July 8 used placeholder fasteners, which have since been replaced with permanent fasteners. He said there are about “700 something” fasteners left to replace in the first aircraft as of yesterday.
“You might put in a fastener that might have a slight longer grip link, but it’s perfectly satisfactory [as permanent]. The removal and replacement other than the actual work isn’t a huge task. It’s a fairly simple thing to pull a fastener out and put in a new one. It’s not a lot of stress on the airplane,” he said. “We did not anticipate the fastener shortage. It was a surprise. Maybe we should have been more diligent in looking at that. It’s getting better every day.”
The software delays involve Honeywell Aerospace, which is responsible for flight control software. The work on this part of the 787 was simply underestimated, said Bair.
“The scope of the work was mis-estimated on how much had to get done. It’s not a technical or will-it-work issue. It’s basic coding of flight control laws,” he said, adding that it was a “horse race” as to which problem is the biggest concern.
Boeing will hold two more progress reports this year, one at the end of October and the other just before year’s end.
Other comments from Bair:
|• The plane fits together better than what Boeing officials expected. “The quality of the parts is very good.”
|• Boeing has already successfully run tests on the hydraulics, electric brakes and electric start, a first for commercial jet engines, which are traditionally started with pneumatics.
|• Bair denied there were any wiring problems, but said engineers won’t know until the entire electrical system is powered up for the first time.
|• Once a plane is completely built with permanent parts, Boeing can begin to make final adjustments to any weight issues.