Boeing’s 787 “Dreamliner”, first announced in 2003, was exciting for a number of reasons: a more fuel-efficient, more aerodynamic aircraft as the first composite airliner, built without multiple aluminium sheets and thousands of fasteners.But the most intriguing part of the Dreamliner’s production was the production itself.
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Rather than building the whole aircraft under one roof, Boeing announced that its factory in Everett, Washington would be receiving pre-built pieces from all over the world, to assemble those parts and make the final product.
Boeing Commercial aeroplanes works with 5,400 factories around the world. For Dreamliner assembly the company employed used 50 tier 1 suppliers, each working with multiple factories, plus secondary suppliers, a Boeing spokesman told us in an email. Boeing hoped for a simpler assembly line, lower inventory and quicker production overall.
As you’ve probably heard, there were delays. Lots of them. Eight years after announcing plans for the Dreamliner and four years after the expected release, the planes debuted this week.
Did it work?
Well, Boeing may have alienated its loyal Washington workforce, overshot its budget and paid millions in late fees, but the company says it will stick to this process going forward.
Boeing designated their factory in Everett, Washington as the final assembly point, and subcontracted companies from all over to produce everything else.
At the Everett plant, which opened in May 2007, 800 to 1,200 Boeing employees would put together the final aircraft.
Kawasaki builds the short fuselage section, as well as the fixed trailing edge of the wing, which they send to Mitsubishi. They, in turn, assemble the wings, using pieces from Kawasaki and a plant in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Fuji builds the centre wing box, which holds the wings and landing gear together.
Alenia's plant in Foggia, Italy is the home of the 787's horizontal stabilizer.
In Grottaglie, they make the top of the central fuselage and the fuselage section behind the wings. Here they add the aft cargo doors, built by Sweden's Saab, before Boeing takes over.
The French headquartered company Messier-Dowty built pieces in England before opening a U.S. factory
Boeing also takes advantage of the several plants that it owns and operates outside of the U.S., from Canada to Australia
Boeing continued to spread the wealth by involving Australia's Hawker de Havilland for the movable trailing edge and the inboard flaps of the wings.
Boeing Canada is in charge of the wing-to-body fairing and landing gear doors.
American companies based out of cities like Tulsa, Wichita, and Dallas, are also contributing, sending their work to Everett by air and rail
Spirit's Tulsa based factory makes the leading edges of the wing. The fixed leading edge is goes to Mitsubishi in Japan (later to return stateside), while the movable leading edge ships by rail to Everett.
Dallas-based Vought builds the rear fuselage and works with Alenia to assemble pieces delivered from Fuji, Kawasaki, and Boeing Canada, along with sections delivered from France.
Boeing also has factories based out of the Puget Sound area that feed into the Everett plant.
Boeing's job is to oversee this supply chain, including the shipping between nations, and to assemble the delivered pieces to create the final product
Once the largest pieces are assembled and delivered to the Everett plant, final assembly can begin. Machinists for Boeing put together all the parts, and install the interiors. At this point, the Dreamliner is ready for painting, testing, fueling, and delivery the the client.
The role of the Washington-area Boeing employee, at this point, is greatly diminished. Much more design and development was given to outside companies than ever before.
Another layer was added to the supply chain when Boeing decided to open a second final assembly plant in Charleston, S.C.
To compensate for a growing workload for the Everett plant after years of insufficient deliveries, Boeing voted yes to building a second final assembly plant in Charleston, S.C. in 2009. The decision came with the promise to invest $750 million into the plant, as well as create 3,800 new jobs in the process.
Interestingly, the workers of the South Carolina plant rejected representation by the International Association of Machinists, which had forced closings of the Everett plant over the last two decades.
While the 737 has 400,000 distinct parts, and the 747 an eye-popping 6,000,000, the 787 is over 50 per cent composite materials, described as 'wafer-thin yet granite-tough,' which promises to increase efficiency while decreasing weight and production materials.
But what the 787 lacks in parts, in makes up for in the number of companies providing said parts. Larry Wilson, head of Supplier Communications Manager at Boeing, told us that the company has 50 tier 1 supplier partners for the 787.
With the exception of a few U.S.-based factories that were capable of rail shipments, most of the Dreamliner pieces -- which, having already been assembled, were enormous -- needed a capable air shipping method.
Boeing, working together with its Moscow bureau and Gamesa Aeronautica of Spain, altered the pre-existing Boeing 747-400 to create the 'Dreamlifter.'
By 2010, there were four wide-bodied Dreamlifters, with 65,000 cubic feet of space, in use by Boeing to transport 787 pieces around the world.
Despite the technological advancements and the attempt at a streamlined process, the Dreamliner has seen three years worth of delays
This comprehensive process, not surprisingly, experienced three years worth of delays, calling into question Boeing's decision to outsource not only the manufacturing of its plane, but the design components as well.
Just as bad for the company may be the loss of loyalty by the people of Washington, who see the company's outsourcing as the cause of the delays, as well as an insult and a detriment to America's current and future workforce.
A UBS report showed that Dreamlifter shipments to Everett and Charleston were still infrequent, with recent shipments even below 2010 levels
According to UBS, Dreamlifter shipments to Everett have been halted five times, resulting in less shipping of 787 pieces this year than last. Recent levels have risen, but they are overall lower than should be expected. Shipments from countries outside of Japan, such as Italy, had even lower shipping rates over the past year.
Whether due to issues from suppliers, workers strikes or bad test runs, the Dreamliner was delayed seven times, pushing the delivery date to late 2011
There were seven different delays in bringing the Dreamliner to market -- specifically to All Nippon Airways, the first buyer of the plane back in 2004:
October 2007 (production problems), January 2008 (supplier problems and slow progress), April 2008 (supplier problems), December 2008 (workers strike and supplier problems), June 2009 (side panel issue), August 2010 (engine delay), and January 2011, when Boeing promised to deliver the first Dreamliner in the third quarter of 2011.
Boeing says the delays are to be expected with this much innovation, while critics say it's proof the company extended itself too far
'It's a lot of innovation,' says Larry Wilson, over the phone with Business Insider. 'With anything new, you're going to have delays.'
But in a report to Reuters, CEO Jim McNerney admitted that Boeing may have bitten off more than it could chew. 'In retrospect, our 787 game plan may have been overly ambitious, incorporating too many firsts all at once -- in the application of new technologies, in revolutionary design- and-build processes, and in increased global sourcing of engineering and manufacturing content,
Another issue with such an enormous supply chain is the sheer bureaucratic wall workers must climb to get work done
From Reuters, one worker interviewed said: 'It's a very elaborate supply chain, so even their suppliers don't necessarily control where parts are being made, so it's a very complicated web of work now that's not so easy to fix when there's a problem.
It's believed that Boeing has had to pay the price for the delays, with the project billions over budget plus costly late fees
If this is the way the airline industry is going, it looks as though Boeing took one for the team by going through the growing pains to figure it out. While the sheer size of the chain is impressive, it was probably too much for one company to take on while also tackling other firsts, such as the first composite aeroplane.
The workers of the world may have to get used to doing business this way -- there's too much money at stake to believe otherwise.
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