Dreamliner sets SOA in flight for Boeing

Boeing's Australian manufacturing subsidiary Hawker de Havilland has turned to a service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach to help it meet the challenge of producing key components for the forthcoming 787 "Dreamliner" aircraft.The Dreamliner, which is scheduled to go into general service in 2008, represents a radical change in aircraft design, being built largely from plastics and composite materials.

Boeing's Australian manufacturing subsidiary Hawker de Havilland has turned to a service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach to help it meet the challenge of producing key components for the forthcoming 787 "Dreamliner" aircraft.

The Dreamliner, which is scheduled to go into general service in 2008, represents a radical change in aircraft design, being built largely from plastics and composite materials. As such, it also provided an opportunity for Hawker de Havilland, which employees around 1300 staff in Australia, to revamp its ageing IT systems and adopt a more modern approach.

Hawker de Havilland is a so-called "tier 1" aircraft component supplier, building components for Boeing and a variety of other companies (including, oddly enough, Boeing's major global rival Airbus). Tier 1 suppliers play a critical role in helping manufacturers simplify their operations by allowing them to deal with just a handful of key suppliers, who in turn take on many of the complexities inherent in building modern aeroplanes, which typically have 10s of thousands of individual components.

"Being Tier 1 means we manage the entire life cycle of the product" from design to manufacture and support, said Peter McTaggart, manager of applications and architecture for Hawker de Havilland. "The move in the aerospace industry to Tier 1 has meant that the large aircraft manufacturers no longer deal with lots and lots of suppliers. We need to be able to step up our capabilities in managing our supply chain as well."

Supply chain management is critical for the company. "The materials we use are in high demand around the world," McTaggart said, noting that some supplies like titanium had delivery waiting times of up to 50 weeks. "We have to have a robust supply chain management system."

For the Dreamliner, Hawker de Havilland is responsible for producing the moveable training edge for the aircraft's wings. The design team for the project involved more than 500 people spread over five sites (Seattle, Sydney, Melbourne, Korea and Austria).

"We have a global network for engineering and design collaboration. All of the product definition, which is completely three-dimensional, is housed in Seattle and we have to collaborate across the globe." While those design components are common to multiple Boeing divisions, much of Hawker de Havilland's IT setup is specific to the division, and for several years it had recognised that the systems were failing to meet objectives.

"We're the product of a number of different mergers and acquisitions," McTaggart said. "We've got ageing, isolated core business systems. We have lots of ad-hoc integration addressing point solutions in the business, many developed by business users. There's a lot of small point solutions out there which form part of the critical operations of the organisation."

Because contracts are often worked out in advance and run for several years, efficient resource planning is critical. "For a multi-million dollar contract over several years, we can suffer substantial losses if we don't do things properly up front," McTaggart said.

The company has historically relied on two separate ERP systems, the newer of which is 20 years old while its ageing custom-developed sibling continues to run on a VAX minicomputer. "They themselves inhibit the flexibility and the agility of the business. We have a strategy of replacing those, but as these drive our scheduling and production systems, it's very hard to replace them without the lights going out. We have lags in the availability of data and a whole bunch of impediments to improving efficiencies in our business."

Production systems have also tended to rely heavily on printed paper manuals which provide detailed instructions for component assembly, complete with sign-off pages to be completed by each worker.

McTaggart says the expenditure on A4 paper simply to print these manuals tops AU$100,000 a year.

While the need for an update was clear, resources were limited. "We don't have a lot of IT resources. Our IT group is probably about 50 strong," McTaggart said, and more than half of those are contract workers dedicated to specific projects. "We need to upgrade our legacy systems and replace our ERP systems without impacting the business."

Because the 787 project required a ground-up factory rebuild, it provided an ideal opportunity to experiment with a more flexible IT architecture. "We started thinking about this a long time ago. The 787 project is a definite business need and helped us get this off the ground."

While the size of the Boeing parent company provides a useful means of negotiating better prices -- "We definitely want to take advantage of those," McTaggart noted -- fundamental differences in scale restricted how much recycling could take place from other divisions. "Our changes have to be progressive and incremental."

The move to a service-oriented architecture, which has been in the planning stages for 18 months, was motivated by a pragmatic realisation that no single-vendor solution would be up to the task. "If we could find a single vendor that it wouldn't cost a lot of money to rip out and replace them, we probably would, but we haven't found one yet," McTaggart said. "While we're a conservative manufacturing operation, the concepts provided by an SOA give us the kind of things that we want."

The company's SOA model covers four key areas of front office operations: authoring and design, configuration, manufacturing execution and quality control. Defining individual services required by each of these was a key step in separating production operations from the old ERP infrastructure, making modernisation possible. "We did try and define these services and keep them at a business level so we can use them to build new applications or new functionality," McTaggart said.

Implementation of the new architecture, based on BEA's WebLogic Server and using J2EE as the underlying mechanism, only began in March, but Hawker de Havilland is already looking at expansion possibilities. "We've started to build projects that can share some of these services," McTaggart said. Two broad usage patterns exist: real-time connectivity for newly-developed clients, and scheduled access and updates for linking with legacy systems.

Reliability was a particular concern. "When we were based on paper, it didn't matter if the MRP system wasn't running. With the new solution, if the systems stop running people can't do any work."

Ensuring more accurate data was another goal. "Data quality is a big issue for us. Our systems are very old and there's been lots of bad data in them."

As part of the data quality plan, Hawker de Havilland decided to architect a once-and-once-only message delivery system. That required some configuration work, since the WebLogic platform didn't directly support such an option.

"The level of work wasn't that great, but there was some business functionality that we needed," McTaggart said. "We did do a fair bit of work here configuring the XML cache to make configuration changes easier." The company also hired Renewtek to help with more complicated integration planning.

So far, the key lesson for McTaggart is the need to have a specific problem identified to secure business funding. "When you've got a project that really needs that kind of functionality, that's going to drive the SOA forward. We started with a definite problem and that gave us the leverage."

Avoiding the bells and whistles associated with a full-blown SOA architecture also proved a wise decision. "We spent the time to make it simple, rather than going in and using everything under the sun, and that seems to have worked in terms of delivery," McTaggart said.

The new terminology associated with web services shouldn't blind users to their essential similarity to older technologies, McTaggart warned. "While the technology and the standards are new, the concepts behind building these things aren't that new. Most of the hard work is the same type of work as before, with a new set of tools."

Changing the existing IT and development culture took some effort, McTaggart said. Building familiarity with enterprise development techniques, and those for J2EE in particular, was important for some of the more entrenched IT workers, some of whom had served for 25 years or more. "They've grown up from a minicomputer background and they haven't really had a coordinated approach to IT strategy and systems development," he said.

Eventually, the SOA should become the primary business integration system. "Our intention is to roll this out across our existing legacy projects, and most of the technical work has been done for that. It's more of a data conversion effort from paper to electronic formats."