What's Causing Huge Delays for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner?

August 24, 2009

Two years ago, Pat Russell, director of global supply at Vought Aircraft, made this comment about the bold global outsourcing program in place for the Dreamliner 787 . "What Boeing is trying to do will really set the standard for how you reduce time to market, from design to implementation."

This summer Boeing announced it is buying the key Vought assembly plant in South Carolina in an effort to reel in that supply chain. Supply chain and design problems have contributed to a two-year delay - so far.

The Dreamliner roared on to the scene as one of the most revolutionary concepts ever - a composite-bodied aircraft that would dramatically change the economics of air travel. As if the engineering challenges weren't daunting enough, Boeing also made the decision to outsource 60 percent of the design and production - a move maybe just as radical as the aluminum-to-plastic switch for the fuselage and wings.

Boeing contracted with more than 50 suppliers, 28 of them outside the U.S. The airliner's wings were going from Nagoya, Japan to Everett, WA. Fuselage Section 43 was going from Nagoya, Japan to Charleston SC, to Everett, WA. Fuselage Section 46 went from Grottagli, Italy to Charleston, SC, to Everett, WA, and so on.

Initially, the move was lauded as visionary and brilliant. Investment costs in tooling and inventories were shifted upstream - seemingly reducing risk to Boeing. Vought, for example, invested in equipment needed to produce one-piece composite fuselages. Much of that technology has been developed on the fly, and the risk was huge, and the risk was Vought's.

(See Boeing 787 Dreamliner Represents Composites Revolution for a discussion of the tremendous technical leaps required in tooling and autoclaves.)

In the Dreamliner supply chain model, Boeing functions as the final assembler and integrator. Supply and logistics information needed to be synchronized across multiple partner tiers so key components arrived at the company's Everett, WA, facility at just the right time for final assembly over a three-day period.

It was a leap of faith. Design engineers at Tier One locations, such as Vought, did not traditionally collaborate across multiple supply tiers to develop coordinated designs.

The bad news began to roll in early in the process, starting with the announcement that companies such as Alcoa could not supply fasteners quickly enough to meet early production demand. Plant capacities were slashed following the reduction in demand in 2003-2004, and had not ramped up to meet demand for an ambitious aircraft program.

Then the bad news just kept coming - delays at various plants around the world.

"In addition to oversight, you need insight into what's actually going on in those factories," says Scott Carson, who heads Boeing's Commercial Airplanes unit. "Had we had adequate insight, we could have helped our suppliers understand the challenges."

Virtual Model Failed

At times, those issues were design related. One example is the failure of wing joints on both sides of the plane to perform as predicted in virtual models meant to speed the development process, and allow for concurrent engineering.

"We do testing

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