Italy special: Alenia and the 787

Washington DC
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When Global Aeronautica opened its doors in December 2006 it was a project full of potential for Alenia Aeronautica, which was aiming to establish a foothold in the US market with one of the highest profile commercial programmes of the past decade. The state-of-the-art facility, a joint venture with then Vought Aircraft Industries, would integrate Japanese and Italian structural components for the Boeing 787 at the company's greenfield campus in North Charleston, South Carolina.

Nearly four years later, Alenia's contribution to the 787 looks very different. Global Aeronautica is no more, with Boeing taking complete ownership and operation of the Charleston campus. Vought too has been bought out by Boeing, enduring near financial ruin as a result of the 787 delays and the overall economic downturn. Vought, which provides some smaller components for the 787, including continuing engineering services, was acquired by Triumph in March 2010.

a 787 fuselage section under construction at alenia
 © Alenia Aeronautica
A 787 fuselage section under construction at Alenia's plant at Grottaglie

The hit to Boeing's reputation over nearly three years of delays to the 787 are nearly equal to the damage sustained by Alenia, which again returned to the spotlight after workmanship issues on its horizontal stabiliser in late-June buckled the Dreamliner's schedule by late-August. Boeing disclosed that inspections of its test fleet and significant rework on production airframes at Boeing's Everett facility would be required to prevent premature fatigue on the composite stabiliser.


According to Jim Albaugh, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes: "If a supplier has a problem, it's our problem. We gave them the contract and we should've done more to help make them successful. That being said, work is not an entitlement."

Boeing is now considering bringing the stabiliser for the larger 787-9, due in late 2013, in house to one of its own facilities in Seattle, Salt Lake City or Winnipeg and industry is openly wondering if the horizontal stabiliser for the 787-8 will come in house as well.

Albaugh, in an August interview, plainly laid out the challenge to the future relationship with Alenia: "We're committed to our suppliers to the extent they are reliable, that they deliver on the promises they make to us, but we can't put the enterprise in jeopardy. We are committed to Alenia, but Alenia, just like everyone else, you have to earn your way on to the programme each and every day."

Alenia continues on its ramp up supplying composite fuselage barrels from its Grottaglie, Italy facility along with the stabilisers from Foggia to Boeing, transitioning from the initial development tranche of 787, feeding design updates from flight test back into production units, while eliminating workmanship issues from stabiliser 30 and on.

Though as it moves to get past its experience on the early years of the 787, Alenia faces another major test of its composite production capability on a design to build programme, serving as a first tier supplier for Bombardier's CSeries, producing the horizontal and vertical stabilser for the 125-seat CS100, which is entering service in 2013.

Bombardier, wary of the reputation earned by airframers over-promising and under-delivering on schedule, and cognisant of its role as market newcomer, continues to emphasise the importance of execution. Commercial Aircraft vice president Ben Boehm has met with Alenia regarding the workmanship issues and how to avoid a similar fate for CSeries.

"The biggest crux of that meeting now that we've heard of the Boeing/Alenia issues is to firmly re-establish our processes," said Boehm. "Because we know our processes work, ever since the Global [Express] we've been making planes like this with international supply chains so we know it works."

Though Boehm had tough words for the Italian supplier: "Our reputation is staked on you and we're not going to let you mess with us."

Yet Boehm had no qualms about Alenia's selection and its portfolio of work: "Why did we pick Alenia? Because they're good at what they do. They make good flight surfaces. We pick specialists in their field. So when Bombardier picks a supplier, we are picking them for their expertise."