Airbus's Boeing 787 internal brief exposed

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Highly sensitive Boeing documents detailing problems with the troubled 787 programme are being used by Airbus to craft its response to its rival's widebody. The information has been put together from the Seattle manufacturer's proprietary data and sources inside the Dreamliner's supply chain.

The expansive 46-page document, obtained by Flightglobal affiliate FlightBlogger, titled "Boeing 787 Lessons Learnt", examines key design, weight, engine, certification, production and schedule issues facing the 787. It was compiled by Airbus's head of engineering intelligence Burkhard Domke and was presented internally on 20 October.

The document includes what appear to be seven slides labelled "Boeing Proprietary", with a format style used in Boeing presentations, including two that appear to have been photocopied.

Airbus says that the presentation, as well as its competitive intelligence gathering methods, fully comply with all laws, but declines to specifically address how it obtained the information, suggesting that much data labelled "Boeing Proprietary" is freely available online. Airbus adds that not all such documents are in fact proprietary, and that it closely watches the market to draw its own conclusions, as do its competitors.

Boeing has declined to comment until it has reviewed the presentation.

Boeing has publicly acknowledged that the Dreamliner is over its initial targeted weight, but the airframer has never specified the extent of the weight issue. An intensive weight reduction program is under way to minimise the impact on aircraft performance.

Using a Boeing proprietary chart with additional labelling, Airbus believes Dreamliner One has gained "21,050lb" (9,557kg) since firm configuration, which came in September 2005, three months later than initially planned.

According to the chart, which appears to originate from an April Boeing Commercial Airplanes update, the significant weight growth originates from fuselage detail sizing and design, accounting for "4,300lb", as well as wiring and installation, accounting for "3,250lb".

Based on this assessment, Airbus expects the initial production 787s to have a maximum empty weight 4.5t higher than the original firm configuration of 95.5t. As a result, Airbus estimates early 787 performance to be "6,370nm" (11,790km) with 248 passengers - significantly less than the 14,150-14,800km advertised by Boeing - which the European airframer expects would primarily affect launch customer All Nippon Airways and Chinese airlines.

In September, Airbus revealed plans for longer-range, higher-weight A330-200 to give it comparable performance to initial 787 deliveries. At the time, Derek Davies, investor marketing director for Airbus, defined "initial deliveries" as the first 20 787s that complete final assembly with a maximum take-off weight of 219.5t, apparently quoting information used to create this briefing.

Airbus speculates that a 227.9t MTOW 787-8 variant will be introduced, beginning with line number 20. The report cites a photocopied Boeing proprietary document from a "Boeing source dated August 2008" that shows "a revised airframe supporting this weight increase. This includes strengthening of the outboard wing, the centre wing box, the wing leading edges, the main-gear wheel well, and the centre fuselage as well as enhancing manoeuvre load alleviation."

Though Airbus speculates that the increased MTOW "might also conceal a major impact of the centre wing issue".

Examining the long-running build issues that have dogged the programme, Airbus cites Boeing's challenges, beginning with the production across the whole of its supply chain, believing that the early issues originated in a lack of oversight on both design and assembly integration for the high level of outsourcing.

All of this was exacerbated, according to Airbus, by "low-wage, trained-on-the-job workers that had no previous aerospace experience" working at supplier partners. Airbus believes "inadequate supplier capability in design" contributed further, citing as an example that "Vought had no engineering department when selected" by Boeing.

With the pressure to expedite pre-assembly growing, Airbus believes Boeing and its partners chose to defer "non-destructive inspection [NDI] from its tier 2 and 3 suppliers to tier 1 partners". The situation was only made more complicated by the additional deferral of NDI from its tier 1 partners directly to Everett to rush major assembly.

A shortage of fasteners has been a highly publicised 787 challenge, yet Airbus delves deeper, blaming a late redesign of a sleeved fastener for lightning strike protection that primarily affected Mitsubishi's wing production. As a result, Alcoa, Boeing's fastener supplier was unable to meet demand in time.

Airbus says that at the time the redesign was completed, production lead-time was around 60 weeks, leading to "limited availability of tailored-length fasteners".

As a result, fasteners were installed with stacks of washers as a work-around for the improper length, forcing Boeing to publicly concede that thousands had to be removed and replaced to incorporate the proper design. Airbus also believes that Boeing's fastener solution "infringes a BAE [Systems] patent owned by Airbus", although it is not known if Airbus has acted upon this alleged breach of intellectual property.

As far back as May 2003, Airbus had at its disposal the internal 787 (then 7E7) production guidance, when, according to the document, Boeing expected a peak production rate of seven 787s a month by 2010. However, by October 2005, with the orderbook swelling, Boeing shifted to a more aggressive ramp-up with more than 10 787s being produced a month by 2011. According to Airbus, Boeing upped its production guidance again in February 2007 as the 787 orderbook climbed towards 500 to meet a rate of 10 787s a month by the start of 2010.

With the 787 delays taking a toll on the projected ramp-up, Boeing scaled back its delivery guidance in April this year to achieve a rate of 10 a month by 2012, two years later than planned.

Airbus's own estimate, dated September, of 787 production does not have Boeing reaching 10 a month until 2015. Airbus also cites one airline source that was "advised by Boeing that the production ramp-up would be patterned after what was achieved with the 777 programme. This would mean that only a rate of seven would be achieved in 2012".

Airbus cites the supply chain as the central constraint to achieving a higher production rate, even as Boeing is being encouraged by customers to build a second final assembly line. Airbus believes partners Alenia, Hawker de Havilland and Kawasaki are investing in new production equipment to support the ramp-up, while Spirit AeroSystems, Vought and Global Aeronautica are preparing for a more gradual ramp up.

Also detailed in the report is Boeing's relationship with wing producer Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which Airbus believes has only committed to a rate of seven a month for wing shipments with a factory sized for a rate of 10 a month. The report adds that "any plan to increase to rate 10 was put on hold due to differences with Boeing over financing" and that "MHI did have a preliminary order for additional tooling that was cancelled" with "no intention to invest in production beyond rate 10".

Airbus speculates privately on the future of Boeing's San Antonio facility intended for refurbishment of the first 20 787s, pointing out that the "site is on seven-year lease. What for?"

Within this supply chain constraint is a central question of the fundamental material choices Boeing selected for the 787. The monolithic carbonfibre fuselage barrels are produced by tightly wrapping, or laying down, uni-directional carbon tape around a mold. Airbus believes the tape lay-down rates are a central pacing item to a robust production ramp-up.

Airbus analysed a public lecture given on 13 November 2007 by Al Miller, 787 director of technology integration, about the Dreamliner at the University of Washington. Airbus recreated a graph by Miller detailing the material lay-down rates. His chart assumed material could be laid-down with a 2006 demonstrated rate of 36kg/h (80lb/h) with a single-head machine.

However, Airbus competitive intelligence tells a different story. Airbus believes that Boeing suppliers were actually only able to lay down 3.6-4kg/h at the time production began in 2007 and had gradually increased to 8.6kg/h. Airbus expects the rate to increase to 13.6kg/h once a dual-head machine arrives, well below the initial goal of 45.4kg/h with a single-head machine.

Airbus cites Spirit, a tier-one structural partner on the 787, as the source of this actual lay-down rate data. Spirit is a major structural partner on the A350 XWB programme, responsible for the fabrication of Section 15, the central fuselage composite structure, at a new facility being built in Kinston, North Carolina. The A350 XWB competes directly with Boeing's 787 and 777.

Spirit has told Flight International it is unsure of how Airbus obtained this information and that the company "takes great measures to protect the intellectual property of our customers".