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What went wrong at Boeing

 
 
 
 
 
 

The future of commercial aviation will have to wait a little longer, as Boeing announced a delay in the roll-out of its revolutionary 787 line of passenger jets.

A game-changing, software-enabled manufacturing process and supply-chain management system couldn't keep the 787 on schedule.

Boeing didn't just change aircraft design by building the 787 largely of composites instead of metal. The production process for the planes also marks a transformation for the aviation giant. As CIO Scott Griffin told us last year, "We still do manufacturing, but we are moving up the value stream to become a large-scale systems integrator." A new kind of high-level, real-time collaboration with its design partners, he said, was critical to the success of the 787 program.

We wrote then of an "unprecedented degree of collaboration between Boeing and its partners around the world--partners who are participating in the actual design of the plane...The previous state of the art in aviation manufacturing was to have global partners work from a common blueprint to produce parts--actually, whole sections of the airplane--that were then physically shipped to a Boeing assembly plant near Seattle to see if they fit together. There, successive iterations of the planes were built and refined with onsite teams from around the world."

For the 787, though, Boeing is having major chunks of the plane "built halfway around the world from each other...Technology is the enabler of this kind of collaboration, which involves a significant amount of product lifecycle management across multiple countries. Boeing requires all its partners on the 787 to use an application called Catia, made by Dassault, and the plane is designed at a special online site, maintained by Boeing, called the Global Collaboration Environment."

But the collaborative process has run into some problems. Boeing cites "ongoing challenges with out-of-sequence production work, including parts shortages, and remaining software and systems integration activities."

In a conference call, Boeing EVP Scott Carson, the CEO of the company's commercial airline division, said delays stemmed in part from "unplanned rework for sections delivered to us. Parts availability from remaining structural pieces to fasteners to other small parts has affected the sequencing of the work in the factory, compounding these delays."

A Boeing representative said the company has been "very engaged over the last several months with each one of our major structural suppliers and further down in the supply chain. I think we clearly have learned some things about how we could do this job better in the future. We have taken steps to make those corrections."

Carson said the issues are specific to the assembly of the first plane, and that he does not see "fundamental issues in the production system."

The announced delay still gives Boeing a substantial lead over rival Airbus, which has experienced major problems in getting its latest plane ready to fly. Orders for the 787 have been coming in at a record pace. How well Boeing can fill those orders may determine the fate of its global systems-integration effort.