Boeing Scrubs New Jet's Takeoff

By Doug Bartholomew Print this article Print

Software integration and supply chain issues forces the aviation giant to delay delivery of the 787 Dreamliner until late 2008.

Boeing, which only a year ago was cruising smoothly through design, development and early manufacturing of its new 787 Dreamliner commercial aircraft, has hit some heavy turbulence. Just months before the first 787 was to roll out off the assembly line at Boeing's Everett, Wash., plant, the company said it would be delayed six months due to problems with software integration and supply chain issues.

The Chicago-based aerospace giant-struggling to gear up to fulfill more than 700 orders for the new passenger jet- disappointed investors and customers with the news that the first Dreamliner would be assembled near the end of 2008 instead of midyear. An estimated 30 to 35 Dreamliners originally promised for delivery next year were pushed back to 2009.

The company, which only last September had downplayed its manufacturing challenges, suddenly revealed that even the careful tracking of every aspect of the new aircraft from virtual design to delivery using Dassault Systemes' product lifecycle management (PLM) software wasn't enough to insulate it from real-world parts shortages, supplier missteps and software integration snafus.

In its latest statement to analysts and media, the company blamed the delay on "flight control software and systems integration activities" as well as "out-of-sequence manufacturing and parts shortages." As a result of materials shortages-specifically a lack of corrosion-resistant tantalum fasteners-Boeing and its suppliers were unable to complete some assemblies in the proper sequence, causing a production holdup.

In another sign of the Dreamliner program's slippage, Boeing saw fit to replace former 787 general manager and vice president Mike Bair with a vice president from the company's Missile Defense unit, Pat Shanahan.

Boeing competitor Airbus suffered a similar, if not more serious, trip-up with its manufacturing of a new airliner a year and a half ago. Repeated delays in the building of its double-decker A380 superjumbo ultimately cost the four-nation aerospace consortium two years and an estimated $6 billion. Cargo giant Federal Express cancelled an order for 10 Airbus A380s and replaced it with one valued at $3.5 billion for 15 Boeing 777 air freighters.

Although Boeing's manufacturing woes haven't escalated to that level, both analysts and customers have grown more suspect of the aerospace firm's commitment to an aggressive production schedule of 109 Dreamliners by year-end 2009.

"We're in a very intense period while we work on how to get through this situation," says company spokeswoman Laurie Gunter.

Kevin Fowler, 787 systems integration vice president, whom Baseline interviewed for a cover story earlier this year (see "Boeing's Dream; Airbus' Nightmare," February 2007), declined to be interviewed for this story.

"One problem Boeing has had is material shortages, particularly tantalum fasteners," says Mike Burkett, vice president for value chain strategies at AMR Research. "This is not really a PLM problem but more a supply chain risk management issue, because its supplier ran out of tantalum, so Boeing ran out of fasteners. With any new design, you should always look at sourcing, which should be well integrated into the design process."

Despite having supply chain software, manufacturers find it difficult to predict which parts or raw materials will be in limited supply when time comes for manufacturing. One way they can cushion the impact of a shortage is to line up a backup supplier in advance. In the case of tantalum, the material was involved in a shortage that affected the entire electronics industry in 2000-2001, with some device manufacturers placing orders for tantalum capacitors as much as 18 months in advance.

Boeing also is struggling with a software collaboration and integration challenge in the development and integration of the Dreamliner's avionics systems. Although manufacturers in automotive and aerospace "have made a lot of headway using PLM to do collaborative design on mechanical systems," Burkett says, "they've made less progress on collaborating and testing of electromechanical systems and software systems."

One project contributing to the six-month delay in the 787 production schedule is the flight control software development and integration, which is being done with Honeywell International.

Both Boeing and Airbus are using Dassault Systemes' PLM for the mechanical design of the aircraft, Burkett says, "but this system doesn't really address when you have suppliers collaborating on a software system. PLM is not as mature when it comes to software as it is with mechanical design."

This article was originally published on 2007-11-07
Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.