Fastner problem could prove longer term hindrance to Boeing

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A deeper and more widespread fastener shortage than previously thought may continue to hamper 787 production long after the first aircraft is fully assembled and in flight test.

Boeing has confirmed the issue with temporary fasteners that helped to delay the 787's first flight date by at least three months is not limited to thousands of individual fasteners, but actually thousands of types of fasteners.

Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney also warned at an investor conference on 11 September that the problem of fastener shortages may pose a long-term management risk for the 787. Previously, Boeing executives have said the fastener issue should be resolved after the 20th aircraft is completed on the assembly line.

"We're making a progress but it's still a scramble though," he said. "It's still a scramble, if I'm honest."

Jeff Turner, chief executive of Spirit AeroSystems added: "Fasteners are still a real painful exercise. We spend a lot of energy across all of or product frankly to get all the fasteners that we need."

Boeing attributed the fastener shortage to industrial capacity issues, blaming a wave of consolidation in the fastener industry several years ago. The new consolidated firms, such as Alcoa, he said, "misjudged" the air transport industry's rebound after 2004 and failed to invest in new capacity.

However Turner, addressing the Morgan Stanley Industrials CEO Conference, said he believed the shortage was actually caused by Boeing's decision to build a mostly composite airframe.

"If you are a builder of metal airplane componentry and commodities I think you kind of took a deep breath," Turner said. "So I think maybe you had a natural lag in trying to plan and catch the cycle."

Meanwhile, Boeing's largest suppliers confirm that both fastener shortages and system installation delays are hampering efforts to meet the 787's new first flight window from mid-November to mid-December.

To address supplier concerns, Boeing has given them a 40 to 45-day schedule buffer by resequencing the assembly schedule, moving delivery of the fatigue airframe ahead of delivery of the second flight test aircraft, McNerney said.

That schedule change is intended to relieve pressure on suppliers to fully assemble their sections despite the fastener shortage, but the supply chain is also wrestling with delays of systems equipment.

"When Boeing talks about needing to resequence, part of the resequencing is that, by and large, we had our structure done and the systems weren't there to integrate into that," Turner said. "Knowing what I do now, I think I would have had our team work a lot harder trying to pull that systems definition and installation plan sooner."