Dreamliner Test Flight Delay Raises Stakes for PLM Software

By Mel Duvall Print this article Print

Can Boeing prevent another Airbus software fiasco?

Boeing has delayed the test flight of its much-anticipated 787 Dreamliner jet, but the company still believes it can deliver the first aircraft as scheduled by May of 2008.

In an update this week on the progress of the new jet, Boeing officials said the first 787 test flights will now take place in mid-November or December, about three months behind schedule. Mike Bair, head of the 787 program, said that delay will essentially eat into the "buffer" time Boeing built into the plane's development, and he acknowledged there isn't much time to lose.

"As it gets more and more compressed, we're eliminating time to deal with anything that might come up," he said. "That increases the risk."

The 787 marks not only a major milestone for the airline industry, but also for the computer aided design software sector. The Dreamliner will be the first major passenger airline to make extensive use of composite materials, lightweight carbon fibers and more fuel-efficient engines. Combined, Boeing says that will make the Dreamliner 20% less costly to operate than current models.

The airplane also represents the first large-scale test of a relatively new breed of software called Product Lifecycle Management or PLM, which allows manufacturers to simulate not only the design of a product, but also its production, operation and maintenance.

Boeing's major rival Airbus became embroiled in controversy in the fall of 2006, when it revealed it was experiencing major delays on its A380 superjumbo project. Airbus blamed the delays on problems with its own implementation of computer-aided design software from Dassault - the same company providing the PLM software used by Boeing on the Dreamliner. It was discovered that teams in France and Germany were using different versions of Dassault's Catia computer-aided design software on the A380's development, leading to serious manufacturing errors (see "The Promise and Peril of PLM," Baseline cover story, February 2007).

Boeing has attempted to avoid the Airbus problems by employing a much more rigorous strategy for using and updating its PLM software.

Boeing's Bair said the test flight delays were primarily related to two issues: Complications with "traveled work," the shipment of large components from manufacturing partners around the globe to Boeing's assembly plant in Everett, Wash.; and delays in completing the coding of the flight control software being jointly developed with Honeywell International.

Bair added the company has made progress on an earlier problem-a world-wide shortage of fasteners—but acknowledged that other challenges may yet arise.

"It is a voyage of discovery," he said. "You don't know until you get to places in the program what you may or may not have to deal with. We will get through this one and get that first test flight in the air."

This article was originally published on 2007-09-05
Contributing Editor
Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.

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