BUSAN & SACHEON -- The striking topography of Busan draws immediate comparisons to San Francisco with its ivory Gwangan suspension bridge connecting the popular tourist beaches of Haeundae to the Suyeong, where the city's massive port moves everything from cars and ships to semiconductors and consumer electronics. Busan is the world's fifth largest port and South Korea's second most populous city on the southeastern tip of the Korean peninsula, with lush rolling green hills dotted with clusters of near-identical high-capacity apartment buildings.
On this side of the planet, Boeing's 787's supply chain operates away from the western spotlight shined on Everett, Charleston, Foggia and Derby. The Dreamliner's Asian supply chain has largely been hidden from view since 2006, when empty factories were filled with nothing but promise. Today, Boeing holds its Asian partners up as exemplary members of its global supply chain, underscoring the quality, reliability and completion level of structures coming to final assembly.
Tucked back from the taxiways of Busan's Gimhae International Airport at Korean Airlines Aerospace Division (KAL-ASD), a factory is in a state of perpetual movement as it builds composite components for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner. With nearly five years of 787 production under its belt, the company is already building parts for the 62nd 787, which will be the fourth for Doha-based Gulf carrier Qatar Airways next year.
To walk around KAL-ASD, you can see the story of the 787 on display. As they ready for shipment to Fuji Heavy Industries, the upper panel stringers for the Section 11 center wing box display a question-mark shaped bite removed from the once flat edge. That bite taken out of the the stringer serves as the basis for the side-of-body modification that curtailed 787's first flight in June 2009.
Once performed at final assembly in Everett, and later in Charleston, the side-of-body stringer cutout was done in a cramped, confined phone booth-sized working space that required artificial light and a respirator. That fix, now a simple cut from the stringer at the beginning of production is a healed scar once apparent on the surface, now driven deep into the supply chain far from final assembly.
While a telling sign of the 787's maturation, the innocuous cutouts are a reminder of how challenging it has been for Boeing to get to this point for the program. As two nodes on a network of suppliers, KAL-ASD and nearby Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) will have to flow information and parts around the globe three times faster than they do today to meet Boeing's 787 ramp up by 2013, a daunting task that may be even more challenging than those already vanquished.
KAL-ASD, is responsible for the 787's iconic raked wing tips, Section 48 aft tailcone, flap support fairings, aft wheel well bulkhead, forward nose gear structure and Section 11 center wing box stringers. Of those items, the raked wing tips, aft tailcone and flap fairings will find their way directly to Everett for final assembly; all others will be dispersed to other first tier suppliers for incorporation into larger assemblies.
From Busan, the 13.45ft (4.1m) semi-monolithic titanium and aluminum nose wheel well will find its way to Spirit AeroSystems' South Hangar in Wichita, Kansas 6,600mi away for stuffing inside the forward Section 41. The aft wheel well bulkhead and Section 11 stringers will be shipped to Fuji Heavy Industries in Nagoya for integration into the Section 45 wheel well and Section 11 center wing box upper and lower panels, respectively.
Each 787 will travel the globe before rotating off a runway in Everett or Charleston, crossing borders on trains, planes, barges and Dreamlifters. In some instances, parts that Boeing machines for the 787 in the US will be shipped to a global partner in Asia, only to return to final assembly as part of a much larger assembly.
On its surface, the 787's global supply chain is almost unimaginably complex, parts large and small flowing in and out of first and second tier suppliers around the world, each partner with a supply chain feeding its own operations.
The CEO of one 787 supplier who declined to be identified, says the scale of the global investment by Boeing's partners in relation to the size of their organizations could make it "the largest and most daring non-government project since the railroads" were built in the US in the 1860s.
Though despite the unprecedented scale of the investment shouldered by the supply chain, the group of partners selected by Boeing is not an unfamiliar one to the US airframer with relationships stretching back decades.
"The supply chain we have is the supply chain we have for all the rest of our models," says George Maffeo, the newly appointed vice president of 787 supplier management. "It's not like we brought on a whole bunch of people we haven't done business with before."
The number of suppliers on the 787 program is actually smaller than the company's legacy products, explains Maffeo, the key difference revolves around the lines of authority and the share of work assembled outside of Boeing's direct control.
KAL-ASD's role as a supplier to Boeing began in 1987 with the winglet and flap track fairing for the 747-400, later growing to include a share of the 777, 767, 737 Next Generation and 717. The Korean aerostructures manufacturer's largest undertaking, its role on Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, is its most ambitious. By 2015, 787 is expected to account for 30% of KAL-ASD's total workload, says Sehan Kim, aerospace division senior vice president.
About 50% of the parts (by weight) on the 787 start life in a temperature controlled clean room. From one facility to another, the process of creating of each composite piece remains generally the same. Carbon fiber tape is laid down on a mold or mandrel either by hand or automatic fiber placement (AFP) machines, cured in a high-temperature autoclave, trimmed, drilled, non-destructively inspected, painted with primer, then flowed to the assembly or build-up process.
There are significant differences depending on the size and purpose of the parts which range in size from bulkheads and floor beams all the way up to 19.4ft (5.91m) wide barrels and 98ft (29.9m) long wing skins.
The aft fuselage, like the barrel sections ahead of it on the airframe, are all built by laying composite stringers onto grooved mandrel, then wrapped with composite robotically placed tape and cooked inside an on-site autoclave.
One of the most challenging, and closely held, aspects of the 787 program surrounds the removal of the monolithic carbon fiber barrel from the mandrel. KAL-ASD is the only barrel producer to use a single piece mandrel, where Boeing Charleston, Alenia Aeronautica, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Spirit all use multi-piece mandrels to wrap their respective fuselage barrels.
The company's direct role in design of the barrel, a departure from its exclusively build-to-print responsibilities, assisted in its ease of manfacturability. During the design process, KAL-ASD modified the stringer arrangement inside the barrel and on the mandrel to make it easier to extract, lowering the removal time to just 30 minutes, says SeongBae Cho, KAL-ASD, general manager international sales and contracts.
This past summer KAL-ASD completed work on a new facility at the Gimhae campus as part of a step-by-step ramp-up to 10 787s per month by 2013.
"We have a good plan" to get to 10 per month, says Kim, who adds additional tape laying and barrel winding machines will be required to meet the high rate of assembly. By the end of 2011, KAL-ASD will have the Section 48 aft assembly operation running on two parallel moving lines.
Typically KAL ships the aft tail cone directly to Everett by sea on a 2-3 day journey, however that can be reduced to mere hours if a shipset needs more time in the factory. Having Korean Air Cargo at its disposal allows shipsets to skip the sea route across the Pacific flying directly to Seattle.
Like A Scene Out Of Star Wars
On the highway that connects Busan and Sacheon, South Korea's rapid growth could not be more evident, with cranes and infrastructure projects expanding highways, bridges and tunnels to accommodate the significant yearly GDP growth, which has rebounded after a significant drop in exports during the global recession.
A portion of that rapid economic growth is KAI, which holds the title as South Korea's sole aircraft integrator, responsible for designing and assembling the T-50 Golden Eagle and KT-1 indigenous trainer aircraft, as well as the KC-100 small prop trainer and unmanned aerial vehicles.
787 represents a small, but vital share of the supply chain for KAI, having designed the aircraft's composite fixed trailing edge, which is shipped from Sacheon as a kit to ShinMaywa in Kobe, Japan before being delivered along with the main wing spars to Mitsubishi in Nagoya. Additionally, the aerostructures company is responsible for fabricating the three spanwise beams and front and rear spar of the Section 11 under a build-to-print contract with Fuji.
These spanwise beams were at the center of the program back in March 2008, when they were found to buckle under certain structural loads. Late in the 787's design process, the width of the beams were reduced as a weight saving measure, but ultimately had to be reinforced on the six test aircraft, and redesigned for Airplane Seven, the first production aircraft.
Along with its work on 787, KAI fabricates the horizontal and vertical stabilizers for the 737 on dual moving lines as part of a dual sourced contract shared with Chinese aerostructures manufacturer Xian Aircraft Company. KAI's factory also churns out A321 fuselage panels, AH-64D Apache fuselage, as well as A-10 Warthog wings. KAI will eventually build the landing gear bay door and inspar wing ribs for the Airbus A350 XWB starting next year.
For its T-50 trainer, a frequent visitor to air shows around the world, KAI has employed some novel automated assembly techniques.
Like a scene out of Star Wars, KAI has introduced automated guided vehicles (AGV) to its assembly process. The orange refrigerator sized robots, not entirely different from fictional R2 units, scurry around the factory floor with the help of magentic and laser guidance, without the help of a human operator. The AGVs, which went to work for KAI about a year ago, retrieve and deliver kitted pallets from a nearby warehouse, fully automating the in-factory logistics.
The AGV's are also built directly into the the T-50's final assembly tooling, shuttling structural components from one assembly station to another and in one implementation aligns the T-50's wings within 2-3/1,000 of an inch.
The focus on automation in manufacturing has been a long-time hallmark to Asian manufacturing, with robotic assistance streamlining the lean build process and introducing further efficiencies. Similar AGVs will be implemented into the 787 build process at Spirit AeroSystems where forward fuselage composite barrels will be shuttled from the company's Composite Fabrication Facility (CFF) to systems integration.
On To The -9
Both KAL-ASD and KAI are already well into the 787's production run with later 2011 customers United Airlines - formerly Continental - China Southern, Ethiopian Airlines 787s at various stages of assembly throughout the supply chain.
Most notably, parts for the 59th 787 will depart KAL-ASD in the coming weeks for Japan, only to return fully built in the form of Korean Air's first of 10 Dreamliners.
When parts for the first 787-9 arrive in Everett for final assembly in late 2012, Boeing's supply chain will be nearing that 10 aircraft per month target. A challenge of a different sort will face the global network of suppliers, seamlessly incorporate a new model into a production system already running at record speed.
KAL-ASD plans to begin manufacturing parts for ZB001, the first 787-9, starting with the Section 11 stringers in 2011, which will be strengthened along with the nose wheel well bulkhead due to the higher loads on the larger variant.
Engineers from KAL-ASD and KAI are currently working in Seattle along side Boeing engineers to design its contribution to the 787-9, with KAL-ASD's first parts for the aircraft's centre wing box to be among those first produced in 2011. That first -9 is slated to be the 139th 787 off main Everett line when it makes it first flight in the late winter or early spring of 2013.