The replacement of any high-profile program leader tends to elicit questions of confidence, though the trading of positions between current 777 vice president and general manager Larry Loftis and his 787 counterpart, Scott Fancher, represents two important changes for the heart of Boeing's widebody products and the future of both programs.
The move plays to the strength of each leader, their respective divergent styles, and what is required for future of each program.
Fancher's departure, and his newfound role on 777X development, is the clearest reflection of where the widebody twin is headed. The move is not negative reflection on Fancher's handling of the 787 program up to now, but rather a signal about how to fine tune a supply chain that can deliver to Everett what is likely to become the world's largest composite wing.
Jim Albaugh, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO addressed this indirectly, saying Fancher's relocation will allow "him to align the 777 production system with the next generation 777."
The comment is near-confirmation of Boeing's future path on the 777, which once included study of an all-new aircraft, is now coalescing around a future stretched 407 and 353-seat 777-9X and -8X, meeting or exceeding a 20% per seat fuel burn and 15% seat costs improvement, say those directly familiar with the 777X conceptual studies.
Fancher has spent more than three years in the trenches of supplier warfare to bring the 787 to a state of steadily decreasing travelled work, through flight test and into service, though his move to the 777 may just signal a coming redrawing of the supplier lines ahead, similarly mirroring that of the Dreamliner.
For Loftis, himself a lieutenant of former Airplane Production vice president and 737 chief Carolyn Corvi who ushered in the Renton moving line, will bring a different culture to the 787. Loftis shepherded the 777's transition to a moving line at a time when it was viewed as unscalable at the widebody level. Loftis and his teams proved the naysayers wrong, turning the 777 into the company's cashcow.
Loftis who, with the leadership of now 747 and 767 program chiefs, Elizabeth Lund and Kim Pastega, introduced the 777 freighter onto a moving line without hardly a notice, is tasked with doing the same for 787 with the larger 270-seat 787-9 and the conceptual 323-seat 787-10X.
Yet, those big changes to the 777 line, now operating in a horseshoe arrangement, fundamentally are the sum of a countless number of small improvements incorporated over the past 1,000 aircraft assembled.
"We've seen some tremendous results in streamlining the production system" said Loftis in an August 2011 interview, "We're seeing it in significant improvements in the amount of time it takes to build the airplane, and the amount of resources required to assemble the airplane. We're seeing ever improving quality rolling out of the factory, and the result is really an airplane that we deliver on time to meet all of our commitments."
In short, that is Loftis's task for the 787.
With its steep learning curve and production rate requirements ahead to achieve profitability, Pat Shanahan, head of airplane programs, speaking of the cost improvements on the 787 said Thursday at Barclays Industrial Select Conference in Miami:
"And it's not going to come at the negotiating table. It's going to come on the factory floor and it's going to come in the supply chain. We've got a lot of experience, they've got a lot of insight, and when we put our heads together there is value that gets created and we come to an agreement and we can share in that."
It is here where Loftis has shown his strength in building and supporting teams to get the cost out of the 777, but the 787's history has pointed to a "negotiating table" approach, with suppliers feeling increasingly squeezed as the delays and halting starts and stops of final assembly made it hard to plan production and incorporate design changes under intense schedule pressures.
As Fancher and Loftis relocate factory mezzanine offices, can a leader whose experience is steeped in the 737 and 777's incremental improvement make lasting change for a program that's own experience and culture has been rooted in big change? And can a leader whose own experience has been forged in the 787's siege-like environment maintain the culture as Boeing looks to its next 1,000 777 deliveries?