Tuesday, 23 June 2009

More 787 delays.

Back in November, I wrote a blog post about delays with Boeing's latest passenger plane, the 787 Dreamliner. It was, I feel, a balanced and sympathetic piece on how incorporating a step-change in technology can be a painful experience.

The 787 will be a beautiful aeroplane, and has a number of firsts - most notably, it is the first large-scale airliner made mostly from carbon-fibre. There has been some disquiet about this, with concerns ranging from the behaviour in lightning strikes to the effects of carbon-fibre dust in the event of a fire.

This afternoon Boeing announced the fifth delay to the aeroplane. It was due to take to the skies before the end of the month and now, with a week to go, they have suddenly announced that it is being delayed once more. The reason, apparently, is that they found a weakness during testing of the static airframe. A static airframe is a plane, representative of the plane that will fly, which is put through a series of stress tests. For instance, they loaded the wings of the 787 test airframe to 150% of the maximum stresses they will encounter during flight, and they did not fail. Static testing is vital to ensure that the real aeroplane matches the design and is strong enough to fly.

Yet it appears that the area where the wing joins the fuselage is weaker than expected. Some are putting two and two together and noting that this area was redesigned a while back to reduce weight; it could be that the weight was reduced too much, weakening the plane. It is already alleged that the plane is 8% overweight, and this will not help matters. Being overweight reduces the range and/or the amount of passengers and cargo that can be carried, meaning the plane is less economic to run.

Whatever the details of the problem are, this is an absolute disaster for Boeing. The plane was rolled out back in July '07 in a stunt that gave a false impression of the rate of progress. Yet it will not have made a single flight two years after that date. There are already rumours of customers cancelling orders for the plane, and the new delays will hardly instil confidence. Worse, it will cast doubt on both the performance and safety of the plane.

This is a design problem that should have been spotted and fixed earlier on in the process. There is a truism in engineering; the earlier a defect is spotted, the cheaper it is to fix. All of the problems with the 787 shows that there is something seriously wrong within both Boeing's engineering and management.

I was willing to give Boeing the benefit of the doubt before; not now. They are in serious trouble,

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