I authored this week's cover story for Flight International to look back on the turbulent last year of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner program. Boeing is about to cross the one year mark since the beginning of final assembly operations for Dreamliner One and the story is one of successes and struggles. It is a comprehensive look at what went wrong, and right, for the 787 Dreamliner program.
Excerpt from One year on: the story of the 787:
The globalised world in which the 787 was to be born was flat. However, Boeing has found that the edges of that globe are still quite rough. The same forces that enabled the 787 to be built on a global scale, seamless telecommunications and advanced computer- aided design, could not replace oversight and on-the-ground experience.
What fundamentally set the Dreamliner apart even before it made its public debut in Seattle, was that it was instrumental in the cultural transformation of one of the USA's corporate standard-bearers for innovation on two distinct levels.
The first defines the challenges of designing and manufacturing new commercial aircraft in the 21st century economy. At the core of this challenge is what it means to be an aircraft manufacturer. With ever-rising labour costs driven by increasing healthcare and pension obligations, Boeing looked towards foreign and domestic supplier partners from around the world to share the burden of risk and cost to bring the 787 to fruition.
The balance between using expensive yet seasoned in-house staff or less-expensive labour at well-established suppliers and newly established "greenfield" sites is, in essence, the new existential equation of the global economy that must be balanced in the development of new commercial aircraft.
On the one hand, an airframer cannot neglect its native experience built through years of developing aircraft, and on the other, the cost of developing the aircraft cannot become so prohibitively high that the break-even point for a commercial aircraft programme does not justify its undertaking.
Boeing believed the solution to this equation lay in the most complex global supply chain in the history of manufacturing. Dozens of suppliers and a small fleet of modified 747-400s support a massive global logistical operation.
In its first year of building 787s, Boeing has found that balance tilted away from it. The company has been bitterly disappointed by the performance of its supply chain. Now it is seeking to rebalance that equation, regaining oversight and control as it works to assemble flight-test aircraft.
The second change was more subtle. Boeing's commercial aircraft division at its heart was a business-to-business operation, providing a product to the airlines that, in turn, serves the travelling public. The approach Boeing took for the 787 was, for the first time, to market the Dreamliner as a consumer's aircraft with unique features such as mood lighting, higher cabin pressurisation and a host of passenger experience-enhancing options for airlines to select. The experience of flying was just as important a marketing tool to the airlines as the economics of flying.