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One year on: the story of the 787

One year ago, Boeing could not have been riding higher. Its stock and yearly orderbook were climbing to a record peak and its flagship product, the 787 Dreamliner, was coming together at an astonishing speed for an all-new aircraft.

Now, one year after Boeing began final assembly on Dreamliner One, Flight International takes a comprehensive look at the challenges faced by the US airframer.

Aircraft orders continue to accumulate at record levels, but its stock has lost over a quarter of its value from its November peak and the company faces arguably one of its biggest challenges in its 92-year history: preparing the first 787 for flight.

787 rollout
 © Charles Conklin

Soon the calendar will pass 31 May, the original delivery date of the first 787 to Japan's All Nippon Airways. By now, Boeing's official timeline called for passing a magnificent series of milestones: roll-out, first flight, US Federal Aviation Administration certification and the start of the most ambitious production ramp increase in modern history for an airliner.

The story of this aircraft is instead one of struggles, successes and a guide to the challenges of building next-generation aircraft in the 21st century economy.

In retrospect, the signs of today's trouble are evident: parts shortages, workmanship issues and travelled work. Hindsight is 20/20, but at the time, Boeing gave the sense it could do no wrong, riding high on a swelling orderbook and an unflappable outward confidence in its plan for bringing the 787 to market.

Bullish Bair

"We know how to lay out flight-test programmes. We've done a lot of risk-reduction testing already to eliminate things that typically happen in flight tests," said former 787 programme manager Mike Bair in July. "We understand how we've structured the programme. We've a lot of confidence we're going to get this thing done, and done on time."

Mike Bair 
 © Boeing

The 777 programme of the mid-1990s was on time to the day in its delivery to United Airlines, and few believed its success would not be replicated on the 787 programme.

However, much has changed since the days of the 777 programme. Boeing merged with McDonnell Douglas in 1997, bringing new manufacturing capacity and a new willingness to outsource even larger areas of responsibility to supplier partners. The forces of the global economy pushed Boeing to take risk- sharing to a level unprecedented on a commercial jetliner programme.

The globalised world in which the 787 was to be born was flat. However, Boeing has found that the edges of that globe are still quite rough. The same forces that enabled the 787 to be built on a global scale, seamless telecommunications and advanced computer- aided design, could not replace oversight and on-the-ground experience.

What fundamentally set the Dreamliner apart even before it made its public debut in Seattle, was that it was instrumental in the cultural transformation of one of the USA's corporate standard-bearers for innovation on two distinct levels.

The first defines the challenges of designing and manufacturing new commercial aircraft in the 21st century economy. At the core of this challenge is what it means to be an aircraft manufacturer. With ever-rising labour costs driven by increasing healthcare and pension obligations, Boeing looked towards foreign and domestic supplier partners from around the world to share the burden of risk and cost to bring the 787 to fruition.

 © Charles Conklin

The balance between using expensive yet seasoned in-house staff or less-expensive labour at well-established suppliers and newly established "greenfield" sites is, in essence, the new existential equation of the global economy that must be balanced in the development of new commercial aircraft.


On the one hand, an airframer cannot neglect its native experience built through years of developing aircraft, and on the other, the cost of developing the aircraft cannot become so prohibitively high that the break-even point for a commercial aircraft programme does not justify its undertaking.

Boeing believed the solution to this equation lay in the most complex global supply chain in the history of manufacturing. Dozens of suppliers and a small fleet of modified 747-400s support a massive global logistical operation.

In its first year of building 787s, Boeing has found that balance tilted away from it. The company has been bitterly disappointed by the performance of its supply chain. Now it is seeking to rebalance that equation, regaining oversight and control as it works to assemble flight-test aircraft.

The second change was more subtle. Boeing's commercial aircraft division at its heart was a business-to-business operation, providing a product to the airlines that, in turn, serves the travelling public. The approach Boeing took for the 787 was, for the first time, to market the Dreamliner as a consumer's aircraft with unique features such as mood lighting, higher cabin pressurisation and a host of passenger experience-enhancing options for airlines to select. The experience of flying was just as important a marketing tool to the airlines as the economics of flying.

Suppliers Tied In

For the design phase of the 787 programme, Boeing was able to tie in its global suppliers through advanced telecommunications and a unified database system to ensure all partners were able to participate in the design in real time. This, more than any other area, was where Boeing applied lessons learned from the Airbus A380 programme to its advantage. The design phase emphasised line-of-sight data sharing using the Catia V5 design software from Dassault Systemes, avoiding design incompatibility across the programme.

"The challenge and the benefit are one and the same and that is the global nature of [the global partner system]," said chief 787 programme engineer Tom Cogan in spring 2007. "Benefit isthe ability to do round-the-clock design." He described how engineers in Europe can be working on solving a specific challenge working, and as they finish their day, engineers in the USA at Vought, Spirit or Boeing can pick up that design from the same database, and continue to mature the work. At the end of their day, people in Japan, or Australia and Asia start their work - "so you really can have round-the-clock design", he said.

Boeing's methodical application of this global design technique, Cogan said, removed about a year's development time compared with the 777 programme.

The influence of the breakthrough marketing plan combined with global round-the-clock design gave Boeing the confidence to push ahead with an aggressive schedule designed to bring the 787 to market dramatically faster and cheaper than any previous all-new widebody aircraft.

The roll-out of the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner did not take place on 8 July 2007 - 7/8/07 in the US calendar. It was on the unremarkable date of 25 June, under the cover of darkness, roughly two weeks before its official debut to the public. The aircraft was surrounded by a much smaller crowd than the 15,000 who would come out later. The assembly team, which was about to change shifts, broke into applause and cheers as Dreamliner One rolled out of the factory for the first time.

787 roll out
 © Boeing

Final Assembly

Final assembly in Everett had begun only six weeks before, a blistering pace for a new commercial jetliner. On the same day as the 787 rolled to the paintshop, Bair told reporters at the Paris air show that Dreamliner One would be structurally complete at the time of the roll- out. His assessment, according to several sources who worked directly with the aircraft, was not accurate. In fact, major portions of the aircraft were "not even close" to being structurally complete at the time of the roll-out, says one source who assembled Dreamliner One.

For example, an examination of photographs from Vought Aircraft Industries, which is responsible for the manufacture of the aft fuselage, Sections 47 and 48 of the aircraft, illustrate the difference in structural completion between Dreamliner One and Dreamliner Two, which was delivered to Everett more than eight months later.

On 12 June, The Seattle Times reported that Section 43 in the centre fuselage and the forward Section 41 created a 7.62mm (0.3in) gap when joined. Sources familiar with the situation say that this was one of the early signs of supply chain trouble. Structurally incomplete parts were shipped due to part shortages from lower-tier suppliers. As a result, the necessary interior structure was not available, preventing the barrels from achieving proper shape, causing the gap when the body join got under way.

All major sections, with the exception of the vertical tail, that made it to Everett in spring 2007 were limited structural shells that would be completed once they arrived for final assembly. Unfinished aircraft are the rule, not the exception, when rolling out an all-new aircraft. For example, the first 747 was only 78% complete at the time of its debut in 1968.

On 8 July 2007, the 787 Dreamliner made its official public debut amid record sales, a 15,000 strong crowd, and theme music to celebrate the arrival of Boeing's next generation of aircraft.

Major Transformation

Dreamliner One underwent a major transformation upon its return to the assembly bay. The horizontal stabiliser, engines, doors, windows, controls surfaces, movable leading and trailing edges of the wings were all removed. The 787 was jacked up off its landing gear and the push for first flight was on.

The full weight of the task ahead descended on the assembly team as it attempted to prepare the Dreamliner One for flight without the factory set-up required to tackle the amount of travelled work that should have been completed at partner sites.

Some speculate that the insistence of Boeing on the 7 July date forced deliveries to Everett well before supply partners were ready to deliver. However, according to many programme sources, this one event cannot be solely blamed for the delays we see today.

Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Scott Carson was asked about the impact of the roll-out by the Seattle Post Intelligencer in December 2007: "It wasn't a mistake," Carson said of the timing. "It was, at the time, viewed by all of us as the right thing to do. With 20-20 hindsight it is an interesting thing to speculate about. I don't know that it would have had an impact on where we found ourselves in October [when the first delay was announced]. That was tied to what was going on in our supply partner factories at that point and what the implications were for us in our factory. I don't think [the roll-out date] affected [the delay] much one way or another.''

Scott Carson
 © Boeing

As Boeing envisaged it, by outsourcing the overwhelming majority of fabrication, its responsibility would centre on final assembly by integrating the major structural components of the aircraft, which would arrive stuffed with systems, ducting, insulation and wiring.

The final assembly line in Everett features four assembly positions to speed an aircraft through in just 12 days, spending just three days at each position, producing 10 Dreamliners a month, an unprecedented rate of production for a widebody aircraft.

Boeing prepared for its new life as a large-scale integrator before its suppliers or logistical systems were established and up to speed.

The lean manufacturing characteristics that are a hallmark of the 787 were placed at the beginning of the production system rather than incorporated as the product achieved maturity. In contrast, Boeing transformed its 777 and 737 manufacturing from static assembly lines to moving lines years later only after the existing processes were smoothly executed. The 787 line was set up for ideal conditions, where structures would arrive fully stuffed and ready for mating.

In the globalised world of aircraft development that would build the 787, cultural obstacles combined with logistical challenges to slow progress considerably.

Thousands of red-painted temporary fasteners had to be removed and replaced with permanent ones that were in scarce supply. To complicate matters further, the documentation from suppliers for temporary fasteners was incomplete. As a result, Boeing had to comb the aircraft to locate, document and replace all of the temporary fasteners to prevent a single non-flightworthy fastener from flying.

Lost In Translation

"Traceability to the source [of manufacturing] is something that is missing in this programme," a Boeing engineer told Flight's affiliate publication FlightBlogger. "When you receive a travel tag from a partner and it is written in Japanese with English subtitles it sure makes you wonder if something got lost in translation,"

As a result, Boeing would have to reconcile documentation on different sides of the globe. Complicating things further, when temporary fasteners were removed, they would often damage the holes they occupied, forcing repairs to the composite airframe.

"Composite like fasteners installed only once," says another engineer who worked with the aircraft.

With each small repair, the system for handling any product defects, also known as non-conformances required an arduous process using the Velocity paperless tracking system that was known for slowing progress rather than expediting it: "You can't put an aircraft through final assembly in three days in Everett if the documentation takes you three months," says another engineer.

In August, Boeing said it had changed its delivery schedule. The fatigue airframe, ZY998, would now arrive before Dreamliner Two.

"To allow travelled work to continue to flow from our partners into final assembly would deter the 787 programme from setting up the Lean production system we envision," said Boeing. "[The change] is necessary and will enable the programme to get the right production system up and running over the long term."

As summer turned to autumn, Boeing began publicly acknowledging the challenges facing the 787 programme in the first official update following the roll-out on 5 September.

Fastener shortages and documentation issues, as well as flight-control software readiness, pushed the first flight back to between mid-November and mid-December. Bair maintained that the May 2008 delivery date to ANA was still achievable.

For all-new aircraft, Boeing historically averaged between nine and 11 months from first flight to certification. A five- to seven-month flight-test programme for the 787 would have been unprecedented. At the time Bair said: "We're essentially going to be running an airline, 24h a day, seven days a week."

Late in its design process, Boeing demonstrated its Catia rendering of the final assembly process at a "virtual" 787 roll-out in December 2006. The animation illustrated the ideal sequence of assembly that Boeing devised. The sequence could not be smoothly achieved if the parts were incomplete or missing.

"We didn't digitally simulate missing thousands of fasteners," said Bair at a 787 update conference call in September 2007. "In hindsight maybe we should have been more diligent in looking at that, but it certainly wasn't something that was on our radar screen."

Five weeks later Boeing conceded its ambitious schedule and pushed its first flight to the end of the first quarter of 2008 with first delivery set for late November or early December 2008, off six months from the original plan.

Fall Out

Notably absent from the announcement was Bair, who was said to be informing the 787 programme staff at the same time of the announcement to the public. On 16 October, Bair was replaced as 787 programme manager.

Pat Shanahan, who had a track record for rescuing troubled programmes, was brought in to "tackle the challenges we face in bringing our new production system fully on line", says Carson.

Just weeks after leaving the helm of the 787 programme, Bair spoke to a the Snohomish County Economic Development Council and had blunt words for the supplier partners. "Some of these guys we won't use again,'' he said. "We made a bunch of mistakes and we learned a lot."

With the reins of the programme he steered for years changing hands, Bair said of his successor: "Pat has a great track record for driving things to completion."

Two months later, Shanahan provided his first programme update. Dreamliner One would fly by the end of the first quarter of 2008, with first delivery in November or December the same year. Boeing continued to reinforce its aggressive production schedule, which called for 109 787s to be built by the end of 2009, three fewer than the initial 112.

As the calendar rolled to 2008, signs of slippage and progress marked the beginning of Boeing's new year. Assembly had been progressing with installation of electrical and fuel systems and the packing of insulation in the middle and forward sections of the aircraft. Even with this progress, the shortage of parts flowing into Everett had knocked Boeing three to four weeks off its power-on date, which was set for the end of January.

On 16 January, Boeing again shifted its schedule, citing "the rate at which jobs are being completed has not improved sufficiently to maintain the current schedule". The new schedule targeted the end of the second quarter for a first flight, a delay of three months, with first deliveries set for early 2009.

"Our revised schedule is based upon updated assessments from the 787 management team of the progress we have made and the lessons we have learned to date. This includes our experience on the factory floor, completing production work on the airplane that was originally intended to be done by our suppliers," Carson said.

Boeing would use the weeks that followed to "assess the specific impacts of the schedule change on the 787's flight-test programme and entry into service". After the completion of the review, Boeing planned to announce its new production plan and delivery schedule.

A week and a half before its announcement of the comprehensive assessment of its supply chain, Boeing announced its acquisition of the 50% share of Global Aeronautica as a centrepiece of its recovery plan.

Making Changes

In February, Boeing received its major structures for Dreamliner Two. The condition of assembly was markedly improved over that of Dreamliner One. The newly arrived sections were 50% more complete than when Dreamliner One arrived the previous spring. The forward and centre fuselage barrels had arrived stuffed with cargo and passenger doors, extensive wiring, ducting and systems. But travelled work still persisted across all the structures that arrived.

 © Boeing

In particular, the process for handling "non-conformances" for out-of-sequence travelled work was continuing to slow the progress of assembly. Each non-conformance had to be checked through a quality certification process to validate the airworthiness of each change. The non-conformances areeach identified and categorised with rejection tags. Those tags occur when there is a discrepancy between the design and the product. The original quality assurance system treated each non-conformance separately, drastically increasing the solution time for addressing each rejection tag.

The time-consuming process was born from Boeing's original lean manufacturing plan, which gave assembly staff the ability to identify individual rejection tags.

Back To Tradition

To address the procedural bottleneck, Boeing shifted back to its traditional quality assurance system, enabling more senior assembly staff to group rejection tags and further oversee the performance of manufacturing staff.

The revised system is a "positive step", says one person working with the aircraft.

The change to the quality assurance system, which mirrors that of Boeing's legacy programs, first began with handling travelled out-of-sequence work and is expected to beexpanded to include all final-assembly operations. At another level, minor, yet time- consuming, design changes have occupied significant resources. Often, "parts are not delivered and substituted with different parts or mechanics make mistakes. Sometimes design error makes it impossible to build as designed," says a source familiar with the situation.

Each redesign has to go through an extensive process that has further slowed the path to power-on.

Schedule Shifts

On 9 April the company again shifted its schedule projections pushing first flight to the fourth quarter of 2008 and first delivery to the third quarter of 2009. It was the fourth time the first flight had been delayed and the third time for entry into service. The airframer's ambitious production plan was significantly scaled back for a "more gradual ramp up to full-rate production than previously planned." Boeing intends to deliver 25 Dreamliners by the end of 2009 instead of 120 originally planned.

Boeing has begun to reflect privately and publicly on the travails of the previous year. In an internal memo to the 161,000-strong Boeing workforce, chief executive Jim McNerney voiced his support for the original planning, but conceded that changes were necessary for the future:

"The global-partnership model of the 787 remains a fundamentally sound strategy. It makes sense to utilise technology and technical talent from around the world. It makes sense to be involved with the industrial bases of countries that also support big customers of ours." McNerney wrote.

"But we may have gone a little too far, too fast in a couple of areas," he added. "I expect we'll modify our approach somewhat on future programmes - possibly drawing the lines in different places with regard to what we ask our partners to do, but also sharpening our tools for overseeing overall supply chain activities."

Just days after the memo's publication, McNerney reflected publicly on the lessons learned.

"Well, we have learned a lot and have the scars to prove it would be my summary on the 787. I think having real-time visibility of your partner's inventory as they are assembling things to give a global understanding of how things are coming together all the way down to Tier 3 and 4 would have helped us a lot. So too would IT visibility, as we had on the engineering side. So there is some learning there for us. We are already doing it differently." He added that Airbus could choose to learn from Boeing's experiences "when confronted with similar challenges. I think they know it will not be easy."

To date, suppliers have delivered parts for three of the six 787 flight-test aircraft, plus two ground test airframes. Programme sources have told Flight International that with the delivery of each subsequent aircraft, the condition of assembly improves, better enabling assembly crews to carry out the work packages for which they were originally trained. Unequivocally, sources say, final assembly is beginning to run "like it's supposed to".

A veteran Boeing engineer, who worked on a key structural portion of the aircraft in Everett, recounted the challenges Boeing has faced in this way: "Imagine you order a brand-new car from a dealer, and they deliver it right to your garage, except it is all in pieces. The engine is in a crate, the seats are in boxes, and the dashboard is held together with duct tape.

"Also, you've been told that a number of vital parts are missing, but there's nothing in your paperwork to indicate what those parts are. And all you have to put it together with is your Sears Craftsman socket set and pair of pliers. Imagine how long it will take you to finish building the car, compared with how long it would have taken if it were completed on the assembly line in the first place."

Unfinished Story

The first chapter of this story is one of the challenges Boeing and its suppliers faced in assembling the structure of the aircraft. As Boeing moves past the challenges of travelled work, parts shortages and workmanship issues, the next chapter is for the systems of the aircraft and how they perform and interact with one another. The questions will begin to be answered once power-on is achieved later this quarter and later this year for the first flight of a carbonfibre airliner.

As the 787 programme approaches 900 orders, record sales for a new jetliner, the true measure of the success is found in how Boeing applies its lessons learned from the previous year. With its flight-test programme, entry into service and production ramp-up rapidly approaching, Boeing will have an opportunity to once again demonstrate that it is a company transformed - for the better - adapting and innovating while undertaking the most challenging of tasks, bringing a new commercial aircraft to market.

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