Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Boeing 787 troubles

A week ago Boeing announced the fourth delay to the first flight of their new Boeing 787 'Dreamliner' plane. This promises to be a revolutionary plane, and has gained over 900 firm orders before its first flight. It could well be one of the most successful plane types ever launched.

There are perhaps two major differences between this and any other plane Boeing has made. Firstly, the fuselage barrel is made out of carbon-fibre, the first time this has been done for a plane of this size. Secondly, Boeing has distributed construction between many different firms in many different countries (something that Airbus has done for years).

Unfortunately, the combination of these two factors has been, at best, an embarrassment for Boeing and, at worst, a disaster. Construction of the plane has been hampered by a number of issues; a lack of fasteners, software delays, and strikes. It now looks as though the first deliveries to customers will be two years late.

On the 8th July 2007 (7/8/7 on the American date system) Boeing rolled out the first airframe to a massive publicity fan fair. The airframe looked stunningly beautiful in its blue and white livery, and everything seemed a-okay with the project. Unfortunately, and rather mendaciously, it was all an illusion. As soon as the press had gone, the plane was rolled back into a hanger and disassembled. Many of the fasteners that held the fuselage barrels together were temporary. and the whole plane was taken to pieces to enable new ones to be fitted. The cause was a shortage of aerospace-grade fasteners, and this shortage caused the first of the delays.

Boeing had desperately wanted to reach the 7/8/7 roll-out date, but were going to miss it due to the shortage. They therefore cobbled the airframe together temporarily. There are several things that seem wrong to me about this decision. Firstly it is untruthful (the media get an illusion that the plane is at a more advanced stage of construction that it really is). Secondly, the delays in having to take the plane apart and refit proper fasteners was considerable, especially if parts get damaged in the process. Thirdly, when it was discovered what they had done (which was inevitable), it makes it appear that they put publicity over engineering.

More delays occurred, which were blamed on various factors; delays with the software, incomplete documentation from third parties, and further shortage of fasteners. Finally, a strike by workers of the IAM union stopped most work for a month.

The problem is, I do not get the impression that Boeing are being in the last bit truthful about the delays. The latest delay was announced at the end of the IAM strike, and appeared to put most of the emphasis for the new delay on the strike. However, it also mentioned that 3% of all the fasteners in all of the airframes completed so far are incorrect sizes. These are not in one place in any one airframe, but scattered all over multiple planes. These will have to all be replaced before there can be any flights. After the problems with the fasteners last year, this seems to be an almost incredible lapse. The news was also released on the same day as the US election, which makes it appear that they are burying bad news.

Of course, all this is reminiscent of the delays that the Airbus super-jumbo A380 suffered (about 18 months late into service, and a much-reduced ramp-up of production). However, there are some important differences.

Firstly, unlike the A380 delays, which mostly occurred after the first flight had occurred, the 787 delays are occurring before it flies. This is important for several reasons; as the A380 problems did not affect the aircraft's flying, they could do many flight tests whilst they sorted out the chaos.

Secondly, the A380 delays were caused by one problem; an incompatibility in design software between German, French and British plants. The Boeing 787 issues, however, have multiple and varied causes, from delayed software to parts supply, from strikes to incorrect assembly. All of these could - and should - have been avoided. For more details on the latest problems, see the excellent FlightBlogger.

Whilst Boeing did not publicly make too much out of Airbus' delays with the A380, many of their supporters on Internet forums appeared to take a perverse glee out of the delays. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and they are being remarkable quieter.

The Boeing 787 delays are good news for Airbus in another way. Their competitor to the 787, the A350, was due in service many years after the Boeing plane. This was due for a number of reasons, but mostly was down to Airbus totally misjudging the market with their original design. They were forced to go back to the drawing board, and the A350 is the result. The delays with the 787 will mean that the in-service dates will be much closer, and should allow Airbus to gain more orders.

However, the A350 is still in the design stage, and therefore Being still have a substantial lead. Also, it is not unlikely that Airbus will suffer similar problems with the A350 to those Boeing has suffered with the 787. This latest generation of aeroplanes are far more complex than previous generations, and there are bound to be problems during the development and initial construction phases. Airbus and Boeing are learning this to their cost.

On a related matter, Airbus is working on a new military transport plane, the A400M. This is also suffering major delays, although this is mainly due to the new Europrop TP400-D6 turboprop engine design.

All of which shows that engineering is difficult, expensive and fraught with difficulties. As the complexities of the aircraft increase, so will the risk. For instance, the Airbus A380 problems were caused by the 330-miles of cabling that had to be put into the cabin. Much of this was required for the In-Flight Entertainment system.

Fortunately this does not mean that such planes will automatically be a failure - Boeing had big problems with the development of the 747 Jumbo in the late 1960s, and that aircraft was hardly a failure. I wish both Airbus and Boeing the best of luck.

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