Roughly a year ago, Boeing was fighting its way out of a production paralysis in 787 development, marked by parts shortages and design changes, along with a fight to regain control of the supply chain.
But even as the global credit crisis has hit the industry, design changes have begun to slow and Boeing's first flight-test Dreamliners have emerged from the nightmare, ready to perform.
In spring 2008, three of six flight-test aircraft were in final assembly. The programme was showing signs of forward motion, with a slate of milestones laid out for Boeing to regain credibility by demonstrating forward progress on a predefined timetable.
By 1 July 2008, then-787 programme general manager and vice-president Pat Shanahan said ZA001, the first flight-test 787, would have achieved power-on. Final assembly of ZA003 and ZA004 would be under way, and all first-flight hardware would be qualified and ready for first flight by the year-end.
While June saw power-on for ZA001, a major milestone in bringing the 787 to life, that month also brought news of a production mishap at the Global Aeronautica facility in Charleston, South Carolina, Boeing's 50/50 joint venture with Alenia Aeronautica. A contract employee's use of improper fasteners damaged the skin of the aircraft, resulting in a delay in delivery to Everett of the centre fuselage for ZA004.
By mid-summer, the aerospace community was gathering at Farnborough for the biennial air show. Boeing appeared confident, but had no target for final assembly to begin on its fourth 787 test aircraft and the programme chief was saying publicly he had yet to receive the brake-control monitoring software from Crane Aerospace, which had partnered for the project with GE Aviation.
Behind the scenes, Boeing and Crane were struggling to complete the software because of improper verification conducted by Indian company HCL. Sources say the software, which was delivered to Everett prematurely, caused feedback loops that crippled the brake-control system in systems integration laboratory testing. Crane's budget for the programme ballooned more than 10 times after requiring massive upfront costs to straighten out the situation, say those directly involved in the software development.
The "blue label" brake-control software was delivered to Boeing in late October, with the formal "red label" version two weeks later. But by last February, Crane said a further redesign was required because of higher-than-expected brake temperatures interfering with remote data concentrator units restricting aircraft turnaround times in certain conditions.
As the summer drew to a close, ZA004 final assembly was under way, but Boeing's list of 787 challenges continued to grow, even as the pace of work on ZA001 was moving rapidly, but not swiftly enough to meet the end-of-the-year target. Assembly completion of Dreamliner One had slipped more than six weeks from its original target of late August to early October, pushing first flight forecasts into the early part of 2009.
As Boeing worked to correct highly scrutinised design and supply chain issues, it was dealt another blow when the airframer's largest labour union, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, authorised a strike on 3 September, the second such sanction in three years. The 27,000-strong membership ground Boeing's commercial product lines to a halt for 57 days, disrupting not only the 787 schedule, but many airlines that were expecting new aircraft deliveries.
Within days of the machinists returning, Boeing announced it would not be able to meet its 2008 787 first flight date, blaming the strike, although the company had already been behind its revised schedule even before the action, say multiple programme sources.
The programme suffered yet another setback when it was revealed that roughly 3% of the fasteners installed across all aircraft, an amount numbering in the thousands, were improperly installed due to a poorly written specification. The 787 was grounded again, with production frozen until the fasteners in the critical locations could be removed and replaced. The latest problem reverberated through the supply chain, halting work on supplier structural sections while fasteners were replaced.
Across the factory, the 747-8 was suffering as resources were diverted towards the 787. Design changes on that aircraft were taking their toll on the supply chain's ability to keep up. Eventually, Boeing would be forced to delay the entry into service of its first 747-8 freighter by as much as six months.
Along with a revision of its first 787 flight and delivery schedule to the second quarter of 2009 and the first quarter of 2010, respectively, Boeing shook up its leadership team, promoting programme manager Pat Shanahan, and replacing him with head of Missile Defense programmes Scott Fancher, who became vice-president and general manager of the 787 programme. Fancher served as Shanahan's number two when he was responsible for the company's Missile Defense programmes.
Shanahan was tasked to run all aircraft programmes in a significant realignment that included bringing the 787 under the Boeing Commercial Airplanes umbrella of oversight. Previously, it was its own entity and operated separately from the legacy programmes.
Shanahan replaced Carolyn Corvi, whose departure came as a significant surprise to those inside and outside Boeing. Industry analysts and programme staff expressed surprise at Corvi's premature departure, because she was a major engine of productivity and innovation for jetliner production at Boeing.
As 2008 drew to a close, the 787 was again a programme in transition - new leadership, production challenges and an uncertain economy lay ahead.
When 2009 arrived, Boeing was again finding its footing, preparing for the arrival of its fifth flight-test aircraft for final assembly. On 2 January, ZA001 left the 787 final assembly line in Building 40-26 for a spot two bays down for final fastener rework and systems testing. The aircraft was repowered-on at the end of January, signalling a restart of the push towards its first flight.
UNCERTAINTY SHRINKS BOEING'S ORDER BACKLOG
EVEN AS technical progress advances on the 787, economic uncertainty has taken its toll on Boeing's record backlog in the first half of 2009. Four cancellations have resulted in the backlog shrinking by a net total of 49 units, far ahead of any of its other commercial programmes.
Boeing earned a follow-on order of eight aircraft from Bahrain-based Gulf Air, but Russia's S7 Group cancelled an order for 15 aircraft, Dubai-based lessor LCAL cancelled 16 of 21 it had on order, VIP customer Sky Peace cancelled one, and most recently it was revealed that an unidentified cancellation for 25 aircraft originated from the Royal Bank of Scotland.
The early months of 2009 saw the arrival and the start of final assembly of the final two flight-test aircraft, ZA005 and ZA006.
The programme has been steadily gaining momentum since March, when all the aircraft systems were elevated to flight status. Boeing has found the aircraft systems performing beyond expectations, completing testing milestones faster than expected.
Programme leaders say the past two years have not only been devoted to production issues, but revising the design of many parts of the aircraft to improve systems maturity.
For example, in April, Boeing completed the factory gauntlet - the first of three closed-loop system testing phases - sooner than expected. ZA001 was run through a full simulated first flight profile with chief project pilot Mike Carriker at the controls.
"We were able to accomplish that testing in about half the time we had originally planned, demonstrating increasing maturity of the systems on the aircraft and reliability and repeatability of those systems," says Fancher.
Static test frame ZY997 completed all requirements in support of the first flight in late April as the limit load test that saw the test airframe's wings deflected about 5.2m (17ft) or 120-130% of maximum load.
After running the gauntlet and completing a series of gear swing tests, ZA001 left 40-24 and transitioned to the paint hangar for a comprehensive aqueous wash of its fuel tanks, to have final instrumentation installed and close out the wing tanks ahead of fuel tests.
Meanwhile, in early May, ZA001 left the confines of the paint hangar and officially moved to the fuel dock for fuel system testing and validation of the internal power distribution capability, which included the first start for the Hamilton Sundstrand auxiliary power unit two days ahead of schedule, says Fancher.
By late May, the aircraft moved from the fuel dock to the flight line for myriad tests, including the first electric start of a commercial engine on a commercial aircraft when, on 21 May, the twin Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines were spooled up.
Boeing is confident its flight-test programme will get under way this month, pointing to additional consolidation of preflight testing by shortening the final gauntlet testing, while expanding the intermediate gauntlet to meet its latest schedule commitment of flying the first 787 by the close of the second quarter.
For Boeing, the road ahead for the 787 is no less challenging than the path that brought the airframer to this point.
Boeing has laid out an ambitious six-aircraft flight-test plan - expected to start this month - to achieve US Federal Aviation Administration, European Aviation Safety Agency and Japanese JCAB certification by the first quarter of 2010.
Key to achieving certification in eight to nine months, as Boeing sees it, is a change in the methodology of its test campaign. The flight-test team has had 22 months of additional time to prepare for the 6,800h campaign, which was originally set to begin in August 2007.
© Jon Ostrower/Flight International
Boeing's changes in flight-test methodology include recognising efficiency improvements it could introduce in advance. The amount of time allocated for flight-testing and for unknown contingencies or "discovery layups" is based on conservatively held assumptions from previous programmes.
"Where we do have an ability to change is how much time we take for planned layups and when we do ground tests," says Frank Rasor, 787 test programme manager.
Boeing believes it will save significant time by using prefabricated ice shapes rather than having to search for known icing conditions in flight. Also, it is using a pressure valve system for flight load survey, rather than the previous system that took 30 days to install during flight testing. The new system, including prefabricated pressure belts with internal electronics, reduces layup time to seven days.
Rasor says Boeing built in 15-20% additional margin into the flight test for "contingent testing, so that would include the availability of any airplane, any time".
In April, Boeing had submitted 2,280 compliance reports - nearly 60% of the total required by the FAA for certification under Part 25 regulations for the programme. Of the 3,900 "deliverables" required by the FAA, only 275 directly depend on data from flight-testing.
The company has six flight-test aircraft in various states of completion at its Everett facility and two further ground-test airframes for static and fatigue trials.
Static airframe ZY997 will undertake a robust test programme in the middle of 2009 to support flight testing. Full-scale ground testing will continue on ZY997 into the middle of 2009 to support flight-testing of the fatigue airframe, ZY998. Tests on the second airframe are supporting certification of the aircraft through 165,000 simulated cycles tested over three years to understand the long-term wear-and-tear on the aircraft.
Four of the six flight-test aircraft will be fitted with Trent 1000 engines, including ZA001, the first 787 to fly. These first four test aircraft will account for most of the programme's flight test hours, with 2,430 flight and 3,100 ground hours, respectively.
ZA002 will support systems testing, with ZA003 validating cabin architecture. ZA004 will validate range and performance, and aircraft three to six will all support 207-330min extended twin-engine operations certification.
Two additional flight-test aircraft, ZA005 and ZA006, will be powered by General Electric GEnx-1B engines for 670 flight and 600 ground test hours. Much of the testing for GEnx-1B certification will be done primarily by ZA005, which will be equipped with a full data systems and ZA006 will follow on with additional lightning protection tests.
POINT TO POINT PHILOSOPHY
When Boeing envisaged the 787, it created a mid-size aircraft that embodied the company's point-to-point philosophy underscored by unparalleled range at entry into service.
By bypassing traditional hubs, Boeing's belief is that the 787 could enlarge the number of direct city pairs offered by airlines.
Only one aircraft previously boasted such promises of ranges of more than 14,800km (8,000nm) in a first-generation technology package: Airbus's A380. Before its first flight, the A380 was 4-5t overweight. The excess growth represented less than 1% of the total maximum take-off weight of 560t, although operators were still disappointed at the loss of payload range, once estimated to be as many as 50 passengers.
For the 787, an aircraft with a 220,000kg (484,000lb) maximum take-off weight, less than half of the A380, every kilogram matters that much more.
Boeing recently acknowledged that the first aircraft would be overweight, but has never specified by how much. The first production 787, aircraft seven, is expected to begin final assembly in June, and will be weighed to determine both the baseline weight and the extent of the weight gain.
Despite the expected shortfall, Boeing is committed to the performance of its early aircraft. "The bottom line is, we think that with the first block of aircraft, we'll have aircraft that do the missions our customers need, and as we continue to improve on weight, aerodynamics and engine performance going forward, that will only improve," says Fancher.
Boeing now advertises the range of the 787-8 as 14,150-15,170km, a reduction of about 550km from the first touted of range of 14,800-15,720km.
Bernstein Research said in a recent report that the first production 787s would be as much as 8% overweight, resulting in a 10-15% shortfall in range, putting the aircraft performance closer to 12,760km.
But Boeing says: "The conclusion on range is inaccurate." It claims the 787-8's range is closer to 14,800km than 13,000km.
Aircraft seven will be the first to incorporate significant weight reduction into the design. Most of the changes focus on removing weight from the wing. A second early blockpoint change is planned around aircraft 20 that will feature "broader weight improvements, including wiring", says Fancher.
In recent months, customers have expressed doubt about the 787's ability to perform as first promised. Andres Conesa, chief executive of Aeromexico, said in February: "The expectation was that the aircraft could go all the way to Greece [from Mexico City]. It has changed. Today we don't know the final conditions." The distance between Mexico City and Athens is about 14,000km.
© Jon Ostrower/Flight International
In March, Shanghai Airlines openly considered cancelling part of its 787 order as Chinese carriers were working to renegotiate with Boeing on their early delivery slots. The carrier's chairman, Zhou Chi, was quoted by Bloomberg as saying the aircraft did not "fully meet the quality Boeing touted earlier".
It was revealed in April that many of the early 787 operators, including the five Chinese airlines that helped launch the aircraft's namesake in 2004, delayed early deliveries, moving many early production aircraft into the hands of launch customer All Nippon Airways. Also, the first six test 787s originally bound for ANA, Delta Air Lines and Royal Air Maroc, were no longer scheduled for delivery.
Many industry watchers suggested that the significant increase in weight contributed to the change, although Boeing says some customers opted for production standard 787s because they would be available earlier than refurbished flight-test aircraft. The change in the Chinese delivery schedule was later confirmed in April by airlines, including China Southern, announcing a deferral of both 787 and A380 deliveries.
For Boeing, much of the future 787 weight reduction depends on understanding how the aircraft performs in flight - information that will not be known fully until the flight-test programme is well under way.
Programme sources indicate that many of the full-scale structure tests Boeing has conducted revealed significant structural over-engineering, with some areas exceeding twice the required strength for certification.
"What we focus on is getting this aircraft given how it is performing, and how the weight case, how the loads are distributed across the aircraft once it is built and tested, where can we go and incorporate more efficient structure to take weight out," says Fancher. "[Weight reduction] tends to be very specific actions, not a parametric approach and that's where our focus is on the -9 and the -8 improvements going forward."
Engine suppliers R-R and GE have been able to make use of programme delays to improve the performance of their respective powerplants.
After many months of additional development, GE expects its GEnx-1B engine to be at spec at entry into service, with additional aerofoils, a revised low-pressure turbine, and improved durability of the combustor.
For the Trent 1000 engine, R-R had an even higher hill to climb, with an acknowledged 4-5% shortfall in fuel burn. The manufacturer now says it will deliver what it calls the Build 4A engine, expected to be flight-tested by year-end on ZA004.
Build 4A features a revised six-stage low-pressure turbine, higher aspect-ratio blades, relocation of the intermediate-pressure compressor bleed offtake ports, and improved aerodynamics on the fan outlet guide vanes.
All these improvements will bring the engine within 1% of target specific fuel consumption by entry into service, and exceed cruise SFC by 0.5%.
Without aerodynamic data and route proving trials that can be gained only in the forthcoming flight-test programme, many of these performance estimates fall within a reasonable, albeit speculative, analysis.
Yet the contribution of technologies such as trailing-edge variable camber, raked blended winglets, drooping ailerons and spoilers, laminar flow optimised engine nacelles and additional engine performance improvements, all leave open questions until real-world data can deliver a conclusive verdict on aircraft performance.
"In the long run, this will be an excellent aircraft," said Steven Udvar-Hazy, chief executive of Boeing's largest customer, International Lease Finance, in March. "But I pity the airlines that get the first ones. Obviously those aircraft will not be the same standard as those 787s later on."
By all outward appearances, Boeing has left behind the production paralysis that marked the first two years of the 787 programme, giving way to the herculean task of ramping up for an ambitious 10-aircraft-a-month production rate by the end of 2012.
What Boeing sees now are the opening years of what could be a three-decade or an even longer road to delivering several thousand 787s. Boeing holds orders for 861 787s from 56 customers. The key now is getting those aircraft built and into their hands as quickly as possible.
With suppliers unprepared to meet schedule commitments during the early phases of production, Boeing was forced to perform "travelled work" that was originally intended to be performed by suppliers, but instead was shifted to final assembly and delivery in Everett.
Fancher recognises the obstacles in front of him, but is bullish about beating the challenges. "We've got plenty of condition of assembly to improve yet, plenty of travelled work to pull through the system to get to a fully stable production system, but we're on track to make that happen, and every day we're seeing stability spread deeper and deeper into the production system," says Fancher.
He cites the body joins for aircraft five and six as a significant point of progress for the programme, beating the planned 21-day span time by two and seven days, respectively.
But even with this marked improvement in progress, key areas of the supply chain raise significant misgivings about Boeing's ability to reach 10 aircraft a month by the end of 2012.
Boeing's ability to assemble and deliver one 787 every three days ultimately depends on its supply chain's ability to deliver one shipset at the same rate to final assembly.
Industry analysts cite integration times of more than 300 days for the centre fuselage section by Global Aeronautica in Charleston as a potential "bottleneck" for the production ramp-up.
Global Aeronautica, which began as a 50-50 joint venture between Alenia Aeronautica and Vought Aircraft Industries, became half owned by Boeing when it bought Vought's share in March 2008.
The facility, which receives structural elements from Alenia, Kawasaki and Fuji, is now a two-line, five-station pulsing production system, with room for a third line expected to be activated during the coming ramp-up.
Boeing is keeping a close watch on Charleston and is keenly aware that flow times at Global Aeronautica are a key to supporting the production ramp-up.
"We do a difficult body join there from a complexity standpoint, three elements of the aircraft coming together at the same time," says Fancher. "We are learning about that join, about the tooling and the tooling concepts that were used as a basis of the design at that station, and have seven improvement plans in place that I status every week, for improving the flow at that location."
Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney says: "We have taken more direct control of that factory, which I think has moved along process improvements significantly and we're making good progress there.
"While it has represented a bottleneck, we are confident that it won't as we meet our production schedule."
Despite Boeing's growing confidence in its production system, the company still expects to see changes in how responsibility of its supply chain is laid out.
"Now, [switching suppliers] does happen and clearly, as we go forward, we'll look at some rebalancing of work scope as we sort through where work is most efficiently and cost effectively done but, by and large, the focus is on helping our supply chain succeed, not moving the work in a rapid fashion [with travelled work]," says Fancher.
To guide the ramp-up, Boeing has created a command centre for the 787's global production, called the Production Integration Center. On 9 December 2008, the centre became fully "operational on day one, all over the world in some form or another", says Bob Noble, vice-president of 787 supplier management.
The idea of the centre, in one form or another, says Noble, was always in the plan to co-ordinate 787 production, although when the supply chain failed to meet the ambitious ramp-up, Boeing gave the green light for the centre in March 2008.
The centre's mission statement belies both the painful history and lessons that have been learned from the acute growing pains during early production. It is: "To provide situational awareness, early issue detection and real-time problem resolution for the 787 Dreamliner production system."
Noble says that he does not believe Boeing could have avoided the production problems with the production centre had it been established earlier, because the lessons learned helped to create the requirements for the centre itself.
"We were able to build the room...with a full understanding of our production system and our needs. So chances the are, if we tried to build something two or three years ago, we probably would not have done this. We probably would not have got it as right as this really feels like."
Noble says the integration centre was born out of a need "to take advantage of the night", adding that opportunities were often lost to get to grips with production issues that arose in the daytime in Japan or Italy when it was nighttime in Everett.
"You can lose a couple of days just getting a problem identified," says Noble.
The integration centre ties in Boeing's seven major structural partners and delves deeper into the sub-tiers of the global supply chain. The facility constantly monitors conditions around the world, ranging from floods, earthquakes and tornadoes to riots and, recently, swine flu.
Boeing openly acknowledges the challenge ahead, although it sees the integration centre as the centrepiece to taking production of the 787 to a streamlined 24/7 operation.
"Problems will continue to occur," says Noble. "Every programme will always have some kind of problem; the object here is to know it quickly and be able to resolve it quickly."
BOEING CLOCKS IN FOR BUSY DAY
The underpinning of Boeing's 787 testing is based on efficient use of the 24h clock, ensuring that no part of the day is wasted. Three shifts support the aircraft.
Boeing envisages a day beginning at 06:00 with the arrival of the test crew, followed by a pre-flight briefing 30min later.
At 07:00, each of the six flight-test aircraft will be released back to the flight-test crew after undergoing maintenance or preparations overnight, beginning the 8h testing block. By 08:00, the 90min pre-flight briefings will be wrapping up and the aircraft will be in the sky by 09:00 for a typical 5h testing block. By 14:00, the aircraft will head back to base for a touchdown at 15:00, followed by 2h of post-test debrief.
After touchdown, the aircraft will be handed over for 16h of overnight maintenance and preparation by the second and third shifts, culminating in the aircraft's 07:00 release the following day, for the process to begin again.
Boeing then runs preliminary analyses of the data gathered during the day, running from 17:00 to 21:00.
Boeing's Production Integration Center at the company's Everett facility will also support the Seattle flight-test centre during the overnight schedule by co-ordinating maintenance routines overnight to ensure the aircraft are flying again by the next morning, says Bob Noble, vice-president of 787 supplier management.