ANALYSIS: 'Stability' becomes new 787 buzzword

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Boeing’s agenda for the 787 programme in the second half of 2014 is a busy one. The company aims to almost double the rate of aircraft deliveries compared to the first half, usher the 787-9 into commercial service, ramp up production of the new variant, start integrating a revamped final assembly process and – at the same time – keep unit costs moving down a steep curve.

That may seem a foreboding list, but another item on the agenda, according to Pat Shanahan, Boeing’s senior vice-president and general manager of airplane programmes, seems counter-intuitive: force the 787 workforce finally to take some time off.

“That’s what we’re spending more time on now is [telling employees], ‘Okay, you have to take a vacation’,” Shanahan says.

After enduring seven years of nearly continuous crises, Boeing officials surrounding the 787 programme these days seem – if not quite relaxed – slightly more at ease.

“It’s really easy to get into this mindset of working seven days a week, [but] no. Everybody has to take their vacations. We’re not going to work on Sundays,” Shanahan says.

That is not to suggest Shanahan is calling for the 787 programme to become complacent. He moved to the programme in October 2007, as the depth of the supply chain and design issues that would delay entry into service became apparent. The programme then remained lodged in crisis for nearly six years.

After overcoming fastener shortages, supplier breakdowns and a side-of-body redesign, programme officials introduced the 787-8 into commercial service only to face an epidemic of unreliable components and, most notably, a battery crisis that grounded the global fleet for nearly five months last year.

“If you were on the 787 line, we built a new plant in Charleston, [South Carolina],” Shanahan says. “We’ve built two different models. We are at a higher rate on a widebody than we’ve ever been in our history. You’ve got all that going on, then it’s… okay, stop for five months while we fix the battery.”

One year on from the battery crisis, Boeing’s overarching message as the 787-9 prepares to make its debut appearance at the Farnborough air show in July, is that the programme is finally stable.

Boeing executives cite a list of metrics to support its claim that the programme has reached stability.

In operations, the 152 787 aircraft in commercial service now have an average dispatch rate of about 98.5%, which approaches the level of the widebody aircraft it replaces, according to Bob Whittington, Boeing’s 787 vice-president and chief project engineer.

The goal for the 787 is to reach the 99.5% benchmark set by the 777 programme, Whittington adds. The two main components driving departure delays are the spoiler control units and the landing gear brakes. Nuisance alert messages, which had previously plagued in-service reliability, have declined to the third-biggest problem spot, he says.

Boeing now expects the 787 fleet will reach the 777 reliability benchmark in the second quarter of next year.

“The issue now is [that] in a lot of ways we’re putting out fixes faster than the fleet can consume them,” Whittington says. The fleet-wide utilisation average is 18h, meaning airlines only have the aircraft on the ground for 6h each day to install changes.

Software bugs that once plagued system reliability are also being tamed. For example, in February an Air India 787 suffered a simultaneous failure of all three flight management system computers, forcing the flightcrew to make an emergency landing. Boeing traced the software fault to a bug that went undetected until the incident in Febrruary.

‘We’ve now got a software patch for that,” Whittington says. “It’s out and being installed in the fleet now.”

In the factory, Boeing appears to be finally taming the supply chain and assembly process. The learning curve has been especially steep in Charleston, where a second permanent assembly line opened in August 2011.

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Boeing's next big decision is whether to build the 787-10 in Everett, Charleston or both

Boeing

The Charleston workforce still lags the performance of its peers in Everett, which hosts a permanent line in the 40-26 bay and a temporary surge line in the 40-25 bay.

“Just think of Charleston as being six to eight weeks behind whatever Everett is doing,” Shanahan says.

The Charleston factory is scheduled to increase its production rate to three per month by “mid-summer”, says Boeing 787 vice-president and general manager Kim Pastega. Output from the temporary surge line in Everett will be “rebalanced”, Pastega says, as the production rate in Charleston rises. Boeing ultimately plans to consolidate the 787 process into two assembly lines, freeing the surge area in the 40-25 bay for “other purposes”, as the 777X comes into production.

The 787’s most challenging task in the production system remains at the mid-body join facility in Charleston. In addition to the final assembly line, the Charleston site is also used to join the mid-body fuselage section for all 787s. Earlier this year the stage became a bottleneck, as production slowed when the 787-9 entered the factory. Shanahan calls the mid-body join the most challenging element in the 787 assembly process.

“Widebody, 10 a month, composite material, having things come in from Kawasaki, Fuji and Alenia – just sticking all those things together,” Shanahan says. “Midbody final assembly in Charleston, that’s where the pressure is.”

However, there are signs that Boeing’s effort to clear the Charleston bottleneck is working. As of mid-June, Boeing had completed final assembly of the first six 787-9s, with numbers seven and eight in build and the ninth in early staging positions, Pastega adds.

The next big decision Boeing faces on the production line is whether to build the 787-10 in Everett, Charleston or both. Although Charleston is bigger, Pastega says Everett’s 40-26 bay also can accommodate the 787-10, as long as there is a mix of smaller aircraft among the five assembly positions. The 787-10 is not due to enter service until 2018, and Boeing seems in no rush to announce a decision.

“For us it’s like ‘don’t press Charleston too hard if it’s not’…” says Shanahan, stopping himself before finishing the thought. “We’ve got a lot of activity there, so grow that site the right way so you get the right skills and the productivity there. It’s all about pace.”

Meanwhile, Boeing could consider other changes to the assembly process as the production rate rises by 40% to 14 aircraft per month by the end of the decade. Alternatives to the Dreamlifter – a fleet of three modified 747-400s that carry sections of the 787 between major assembly hubs in Italy, Japan and the USA – are being considered.

“You know, it’s risky flying those things around,” Shanahan says. “We’d like to figure out how to be risk-balanced there.”

The final assembly process is also becoming more streamlined. Last year, Boeing broke up position one – home of the ‘mother of all tooling towers’ – into two subpositions, with one area dedicated to joining the wing to the airframe and the other focused on joining the midbody to the nose and aft sections of the fuselage.

Seattle has also revealed plans to reconfigure the staging area behind the first assembly position into a pre-integration area. Two complete sets of aircraft fuselages will be laid out on the factory floor, and the new area will allow workers to begin installing systems and interiors early, rather than waiting until the airframe reaches the second assembly position, Pastega says. That process will be duplicated in Charleston and Everett.

Flow time through the factory has dropped by 40-50% since last year, Shanahan adds. The amount of travelled work reaching the flight line has declined to 777 levels – the benchmark for production stability within Boeing.

This more efficient production system is also having an effect on costs. While some analysts are sceptical that Boeing will reach a goal to deliver a 787 at a cost equal to the price early next year, Pastega says unit costs have declined 15% since last year on the assembly line.

“Now that we’re stable we can really focus on trying to achieve new records,” Shanahan says. “For the employees a big piece of this is helping them realise what they’ve just created. For management, it’s to step back and to help people get energised – and calm – and then ready to press the productivity. If anything, things should slow down even though they are speeding up.”

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(Correction: An earlier version of this article identified the wrong variant of the 747 that is modified to become the Dreamlifter.)