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787 special: Crunch time

The next three months will be a crucial time for Boeing as it moves towards assembly of the first 787 Dreamliner, and suppliers start to ramp up production

Like an enormous rocket, the entire Boeing 787 project is finally poised for launch after years of preparation, research and development. The countdown clock is ticking down, and everything depends on the success of a series of upcoming milestone events.

“The next three months is the most critical phase for the programme because that’s when we begin really building the first article, activating all the labs and getting the systems going,” says Scott Strode, 787 vice-president of aircraft development and production.

“We are really into that ‘crunch’ time of moving from the engineering and testing part of the programme and into assembly. Just about every major work package is into fabrication and we’re ramping-up globally. We’re also beginning the delivery phase for the electronics into various labs,” he says.

Feeling the heat

The pressure to deliver is enormous, not least because of the 787’s astonishing success in the market. With firm sales pushing towards the 400 barrier by mid-September, Boeing looks to be well on-track to achieve its 500 sales target at entry into service in mid-2008. Never before has any commercial airliner programme won so much business before the first aircraft has even flown, and never before have expectations been so high.

 
© Boeing
With around 400 firm sales by mid-September, the 787 is the fastest selling airliner in Boeing's history

Yet Strode is all too aware of the growing gossip about development delays, problems, schedule slips and impending snarl-ups for the Dreamliner. Confirming the old saying that there is no smoke without fire, Strode says: “There is a similar pattern to all these programmes. We are a little late on getting some of the engineering out, and we are compressing the schedule to accommodate that. There are a few critical areas we are behind on and we’re working hard on those.”

One such area is materials. “We’ve had a lot of tough struggles in obtaining big titanium forgings,” says Strode, who echoes earlier warnings from 787 vice-president and general manager Mike Bair, who described the raw material as a “watch item, because this aircraft consumes an enormous amount of titanium. Right now there is a pinch point in the market for titanium.”

However Strode says the worst is, at least for now, behind Boeing and “we’re beginning to deliver the first of those large pieces into Japan”, explaining that these are mostly for major fittings such as wing, nacelle and landing gear attachments. “It will continue to be a focus, and in the meantime we’re starting to deliver the first set of parts into assembly. FHI [Fuji Heavy Industries) has started Section 11 on time and is making great progress.”

While major partners get to grips with subassembly manufacture, others are starting the complex task of supplying and testing initial sets of aircraft systems and avionics. “Hardware deliveries in terms of systems are not an area we are concerned about. What we are concerned about most is the integration of the systems and software, and validating all the functionality. We have got all that going on through the rest of the year,” he says.

With progress on so many fronts at once, Strode knows he must remain as calm as a conjuror with a stage full of spinning plates. “We have a great deal of concurrency with the design, build and test activity all going on, which carries inherent risk. However, all in all the testing has gone better than expected, though we still have a lot of big ones coming up. But so far, knock on wood, we’ve had good results!”

One key design area still being worked on is the final configuration of specific fasteners that penetrate the wing. The revised design is being developed to meet concerns expressed by an internal Boeing safety team that was evaluating the 787 fuel tank’s protection from the effects of a lightning strike. The team believed that a loose fastener penetrating the wing skin could leave a gap between itself and the drill hole that could lead to the formation of a spark and hence a source of ignition.

The task of making the 787 lightning-proof has been exacting, says Strode. “We’re dealing with a combination of not just pressure due to corporate concerns, but also that this is the first all-new aircraft to comply with new regulations dealing with ignition sources. These are very challenging for an all-metal wing, let alone the unique characteristics of a composite wing,” he adds.

To shield the 787’s avionics and other more-electric systems from the focused energy of a lightning strike, and to prevent concentrated damage or system disruption, a thin metal foil or mesh is embedded in the outer layers of the composite fuselage and wing, minimising changes to the electromagnetic field. To be on the safe side, and to meet the demands of the new requirements, a nitrogen fuel tank inerting system will be standard.

Perfect fit

Within the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI)-built wing each fastener is being designed to slot in precisely and will be sealed on the inside to ensure a spark-free fit. Boeing and MHI also plan to seal the internal edges within the wing structure, where the composite skin meets the metallic ribs and other fittings, with a non-conducting glassfibre material. “We’re winding down rapidly now on this, and we should have the basic design within a month,” says Strode, who adds that “testing to validate that will continue”.

 
© Boeing
Two fuselage barrels have been added to the test and certification programme due to production issues

A recurring theme throughout 2006 has also been weight, and the potential effect on the much-vaunted operating economics of the 787 should it get out of hand. Now that actual parts are being made Boeing is finally getting a chance to weigh them. “We’re still at quite a critical phase and we’re working very aggressively to meet our customer commitments for delivered aircraft,” says Strode. “We are working hard to minimise weight and, when I look at what we’ve achieved so far, it’s about where we predicted we’d be in general – but we still have a long way to go to get to our goals.”

Strode says weight is “still about 2-3%” over target, and “we’re still three months away from knowing the total production value of the weight of the aircraft”. He adds that final design tweaks are still making absolute values a guessing game. “For example, the wing is shielded and the final ply and the way we do that is still in front of us. But most of the big structural parts are coming out how we predicted them, though we’re not home free yet.”

Another question that appears to have receded is the issue of a second planned production ramp-up on top of the aggressive plan already sanctioned by Boeing and its partners. “We still see a strong market demand for 2011-12 and beyond, and we’ve really started to look in detail at the lead times associated with the tooling and capital equipment and so on. However, we’re not at the point where we have to commit those dollars until we know more about the aircraft and how it behaves.”

Strode adds that by standing off from a near-term decision, Boeing avoids spending on expensive production processes that may change. “We don’t want [suppliers] to have to buy too much stuff to make the aircraft and then [we] decide to do it differently. For example, with the tooling for big composite parts, we’ve already got plenty of ideas on how to make it in a better way.”

Getting it right

He echoes the views of 787 business management vice-president Craig Saddler, who earlier warned that the rate increase study, originally expected to be complete around mid-year, would slide towards the year-end. Saddler says “time is on our side. To be honest we’re not in a hurry with this production study – we want to get it right.”

Saddler says the decision will ease pressure on suppliers, allowing them to gain reassurance in their production processes. “To be honest they’re a bit tentative. We’ve been asking them to do something they’ve never done before. We’re probably better off letting people build parts – their confidence will come way up and I think we’re going to find out we’re in a lot better shape than we thought we were.”

The on-going study is the second major part of what has been a virtual on-going rate re-evaluation since the 787 was launched. This has been propelled by the continuing market demand, and Boeing is believed to be looking at stepping up the rate from 10 per month to 12 in 2011, with possible further increases to 14 beyond that. As it stands, Boeing’s projected rate increase for the 787 to 10 per month by around 2010 will be the highest production pace for any widebody in air transport history.

The case for delaying the decision has been strengthened by Boeing’s experiences with the assembly of flawed composite fuselage barrel sections earlier this year. The “infamous barrel that didn’t work” incident, as described by Bair, led to the development of a new mandrel to be used to make two new demonstration barrel sections in Boeing’s Developmental Center by Boeing Field. “By early next year we will be laying up the new parts,” says Strode.

Lessons learned from the episode could also have a silver lining, says Strode. The original problem was caused because the composite mandrel “expanded too much, and rather than re-do it, we sent it back to the machine shop and leak paths developed. We should have thrown it away,” recalls Bair. “This one was flawed going in and we thought we could make it work, but we couldn’t.” The result was bubbles and voids that developed in the composite as it was being wound on the mandrel.

Avoiding problems

“Because of the examination of what went wrong we could have avoided future problems cropping up in particular factories. I’m not saying we’ve had problems, but this has certainly reduced the chances of it happening in the future,” says Strode.

As for future development of the 787 family, Strode says detailed design of the short/medium-range -3 and stretched -9 will start next year. He adds that Boeing has not seen enough of the revamped Airbus A350XWB to know where exactly it will compete against the 787 and whether it will affect the embryonic -10. “We really don’t know, and if we look at where they’re going it’s a bigger aircraft and not necessarily a direct competitor to the -8.” As for the -10, “the good news for us is we have three variants in front of that and we have plenty of chances to optimise that”.

Saddler adds that “about a dozen airlines have expressed interest in [the -10], and we’ve not used the full capability of the aircraft. We know we can do it, though we don’t have the authority to offer that yet. But it’s going to happen and the earliest we could deliver it remains 2012.” Although the revised A350 could pose more of a direct threat to the upper end of the 787 family, Saddler says: “We like where we are and, from what I’ve seen, we’re not going to see any drop-off in demand for the -10”.

But for the moment, Strode and his team are focused squarely on four main targets. “Number one is getting the first complete composite airframe on its way through its lay-up and curing – that’s really critical. Second, the manufacturing of all the parts in the supply chain and the orchestration of that. Number three – we certainly want to keep on track with the development of systems, and the testing of their functionality in the labs. Fourth, we need the engine programmes to get the data they need, and for them to keep building hours. Those are the big watch items.”

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