ANALYSIS: How Boeing has smoothed the 787-9's progress

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In stark contrast to its troublesome older sister, the first 787-9 will likely in a matter of weeks roll out of Boeing's final assembly centre on time, complete and with comparatively little fanfare.

Newly obtained pictures from inside the 40-24 bay of the Everett, Washington factory complex show the first 787-9 had progressed to the most advanced position about four weeks after Boeing initiated the final assembly process in early June.


 Peter Clark

 Final assembly of the latest 787 model began in June

The difference between the 40-month delay of the 787-8 and the outwardly smooth introduction of the stretched model into the production system is most apparent to the Boeing executives who have laboured to overcome the supply-chain and design breakdowns.

"Who was here on the 787-8?" Pat Shanahan, Boeing vice-president and general manager of airplane programmes, asked a group of reporters gathered in Seattle on the day before the 787-9 entered final assembly.

"That one took a little while to get going," Shanahan says. "But this one has been on time."

As the first major aircraft variant to reach firm configuration in the aftermath of the 787-8 delays, the 787-9 offered Boeing an ideal opportunity to apply the lessons learned from that experience.

The results reveal a dramatic internal change, even if the end product looks very familiar.

Boeing's suppliers delivered the wing and the section 41 nose section to Everett early, Shanahan says. The weight of the 787-9 declined from the firm configuration milestone in June 2010, instead of growing by several tonnes as on the 787-8. The first 787-9 is running through the production system on track, even as Boeing has accelerated production to seven aircraft per month while lately resolving the type's battery crisis.

This internal turnaround may have seemed implausible less than two years ago, as Boeing neared the long-awaited first delivery milestone on the 787-8 in September 2011.

By then, critical changes in the design of the stretched variant and the structure of the production system were already in motion.

The biggest test for the 787-9 is still yet to come. Boeing faces the challenge of building the first four 787-9s for flight test at the same time as the supply chain is tasked with raising output again, rising from seven deliveries per month to 10, and it all must be done by year-end.

"The four [flight test] airplanes built come in a period where we go to 'Rate 10', so this is where we take our final exam," Shanahan says. Boeing must simultaneously "build more widebodies than we ever have before, sneak four new -9s into the production system [and] get them all flying."

Unlike two years ago, few seriously doubt that Boeing will not pull it off. Boeing management's regained confidence on the 787-9 is partly a result of reduced complexity. Boeing is no longer attempting to invent an entirely new aircraft using an unfamiliar production system.

"When I think back to the -8 we were still learning a lot," says Mike Sinnett, Boeing's 787 chief project engineer. "There are very few inventions on the -9. The technologies are not as big a stretch as they were on the -8."

Boeing also took a hard look at the design of the 787 production system. In developing the 787-8 supply chain, Boeing ceded design authority for most of the aircraft to outside partners, hoping to reduce costs by spreading the risk and the work to a global network of suppliers. It was a decision Boeing came to regret amidst the entry-into-service delays caused initially by massive parts shortages and quality control breakdowns.

"For the -8, less than 50% of the detailed design was done by Boeing and the rest was done by partners," says Scott Fancher, Boeing's vice-president and general manager for airplane development. "With the -9, we actually reversed that trend and took it back to where well over the majority of the detailed design was done by Boeing. It doesn't mean our partners weren't doing detailed design. They were doing less of it, and they were less integrated design, so we brought the risk - the ownership of the risk - closer to home."


 Peter Clark

First flight of the model will come later this year

The costly experience of the 787-8 led Boeing to review its entire approach to supply-chain strategy. Outsourced components still make up a high percentage of the 787-9 airframe and systems, but Boeing believes it is taking a more disciplined approach to such decisions.

It is part of a new strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The goal is to put the same focus on the production system as aircraft design engineers pour into aerodynamic performance.

"We've moved to where there is a focus on product performance and there is a much greater focus on production system performance," says Kent Fisher, vice-president and general manager of supply chain management for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

That new approach has driven Boeing to take a harsher tone with some suppliers. The gist of the message was highlighted in May by Boeing chairman and chief executive Jim McNerney, who said the company has established a "no-fly" list for suppliers. The comment was aimed at denying business to suppliers on new commercial programmes if they are not "playing ball" with Boeing on defence programmes and vice versa.

Fisher says that he is now sometimes asked by Jack House, his counterpart in the Boeing defence division, to not to do business with a particular supplier because of performance or commercial issues.

"I'll honour that, and he's done the same for me," Fisher says. The suppliers "get the message that they're not going to divide and conquer Boeing any more, and they can't do inappropriate things with one part of our business and expect to get business from another part".


 Peter Clark

 The first -9 is running through the production system on track

Boeing also has made inward-looking changes at how its own process for managing what it calls the "extended production system", including suppliers far below the level of tier-one contractors.

"Early on in the 787 programme, we were not very attentive to what was going on in sub-tiers, whether it was fasteners or raw materials or even electrical standards; we got into a situation where if we hadn't taken action it would have caused significant problems for the programme," Fisher says. "We're doing a better job of understanding the impact on those sub-tiers."

The fruits of all this change are now coming together on the 787 temporary surge line in the 40-24 bay, where the first 787-9 is nearly fully assembled. Following what is expected to be a subdued roll-out ceremony, Boeing plans to fly the 787-9 a few weeks later.

"I think the team has really had a chance to shine," Sinnett says. "The whole process has improved dramatically since the 787-8 went into final assembly. We've got not only a very clean production line, not only are we moving along on rate very cleanly with very little travelled work, we've also got extra time built into the production schedule for the first three -9s to account for anything we might need to learn that we haven't learned yet."