Is 787 Dreamliner novel manufacturing strategy on the rocks?

Written by John Dodge, Contributor

Has Boeing's bold, innovative and controversial strategy to farm out manufacturing of the major components in its very late 787 Dreamliner failed? That partly depends on how much, if any, of the two-year and counting delay could have been avoided by making the aircraft largely on its own. So far, delays have played the starring role in losing Boeing 60 787 orders this year and winning it only 13 new ones.

With Boeing's acquisition of Vought Aircraft's North Charleston, S.C., plant this week, the strategy has certainly has taken another hit. On Tuesday, Boeing said it would acquire the Dallas-based aircraft concern's plant where the two aft fuselage sections of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (see image, sections 47 and 48) are made.

Vought makes sections 47 and 48.

There has been speculation that the deal presages a second 787 assembly line. The Seattle area media has been buzzing about how the area will lose the second production line for the airplane which has garnered about 850 orders.  The first line for final assembly is in Everett, Washington.

Vought and Boeing were already linked at the hip. The head of the Vought 787 program is former Boeing executive Joy Romero. A year ago, Boeing bought Vought's stake in the joint venture that made the aft fuselage. Vought has struggled financially and dumped "hundreds of millions" more than it expected into the 787 program, according to a story in the Dallas Morning News this week.

While Vought has been the most visible thorn in the Boeing's dispersed manufacturing strategy, an overly stressed area in the wing prompted Boeing two weeks ago to announce another embarrassing delay in the 787's first flight. It did not disguise the fact that Fuji Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries make that part of the plane.

Fastener shortages as well as unfinished components showing up at the final assembly plant in Everett have also contributed to delays. And the key issue in an eight week machinists strike at Boeing last Fall was the outsourcing of work. Still, Boeing executive did not budge on the strategy.

Ceding control of the plane's manufacturing has also led to a very a very public airing of all the warts - or at least the ones we know about. That said, the usually locked-down Boeing has been more open with the development of this airplane compared to ones in the past.

The goal of the manufacturing plan is to hold down costs, but think about it. As I recall, final assembly is (or was) supposed to take a mere the three or four days per plane after all the components arrived in Everett. It's only human nature to wonder about a plane snapped together that fast.

In April, 2007, I extensively interviewed former 787 chief project engineer Tom Cogan when the Airbus A380 was the poster child for delayed jetliners. At the time, it looked like the 787 would fly on time or only with a smaIl delay. I thought he was humble, but how does what he said sound now. I quote from my Q&A with him in Design News.

"Certainly there’s a quiet confidence on our part that we can deliver what we’ve promised. Airbus is a world-class manufacturer of commercial jets and they are having their struggles just as we have had our challenges in the past. It’s the nature of the business and the products we design. They’ll be in this with us for many years, but we stay focused on our products and let them worry about theirs."

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This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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