About four months ago Bill told you about this beastly contraption created by Boeing. A heavily modified 747, it actually has three times the cargo capacity of a typical 747 freighter and is called the Large Cargo Freighter. The Wall Street Journal finally got around to telling you about it today, so I guess you now know where to go for the latest news.
Ugly perhaps, but pretty cool, right? A new technological innovation to help air freight companies worldwide? Well, not quite. This behemoth serves only one purpose: to transport large subassemblies for the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner program… hence the other name for this monster: Dreamlifter.
Scott Strode, VP of 787 development, said
"The Large Cargo Freighter fleet is the foundation of our lean, global production system and enables us to meet the unprecedented customer demand for the 787."
Yes, "fleet." There will at least three of these monsters. At least they’ll look a little better after being painted.
Many people, myself included, have been impressed with Boeing’s commitment to lean. But this makes me wonder. When hundreds of millions of dollars are sunk into designing and building something that would typically be a core component of your product line, but the intent is to never sell it, then that should raise a red flag. A large one in this case.
The WSJ article gives some more details on Boeing’s supply chain conundrums.
The sprawling nature of the 787’s supply chain makes it a challenge to move parts around in a timely fashion. The Dreamliner’s 43-foot-long nose section, for example, to be built in Wichita, Kan., is too tall to travel by rail to Boeing’s final assembly plant in Everett, Wash. Boeing could truck it 130 miles to Tulsa, Okla., for a barge ride down the Arkansas River. But 17 locks lie between there and New Orleans and the open sea. After that, the trip through the Panama Canal and up the entire West Coast would require up to 45 days of transit time. Aboard the flying cargo freighter, however, the same nose section could make it from Wichita to Everett in just under four hours.
Production plans for the Dreamliner call for major fuselage sections to be shipped from Nagoya, Japan, to Charleston, S.C., where they will be mated with sections airlifted from Grottaglie, Italy. By the time the ballet is completed, Boeing hopes to snap the 787 sections together like a giant model airplane in Everett in just three days, compared with up to a month that it now takes to complete similar-size jetliners.
That sounds pretty good… reducing a 45 day trip through 17 locks to only four hours. And what a marvel to be able to fly huge subassemblies all over the world and then snap them together in three days. Though that "three day" number is a silly metric, and distracts the reader from the fact that each subassembly still takes days if not weeks to assemble at each distant factory. And then package securely for a long distance air voyage.
But wait a minute… years ago weren’t the 707, 737, earlier 747 and others made completely at the Everett and nearby facilities? With a little fine-tuning that supply chain could be measured in hours as well, with three days to "snap them together." Except there wouldn’t be a fleet of Dreamlifters flying around, subject to weather delays, lightning, birds, and worse. That brings a whole new meaning to the concept of supply chain risk.
Only a few years ago Boeing laid of tens of thousands of knowledge workers at its Everett region facilities. Of course a lot of that was due to a severe downturn in the aircraft market after 9/11, but a lot was also due to outsourcing and offshoring large components and subassemblies. Is manufacturing in Everett really that difficult that flying tons of aluminum around the world makes more sense than to reemploy all those workers? Presumably some of the reason is political, trading jobs and knowledge and efficiency for aircraft orders.
Now that Mulally has moved from Boeing to Ford, there’s probably a secret development program at Ford consuming millions of dollars. Something that Mulally will use to revolutionize Ford’s supply chains and somehow make them leaner in their own minds. Behold, the Large Cargo Truck. Maybe it will at least be a hybrid.