Flight Global has become one of my favorite online reads, not just because I spend an inordinate amount of time in the air, but also because it has some great in-depth reporting on the operations and manufacturing side of aircraft. Over the past couple weeks they’ve detailed the headaches of the past year for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner program and the similar ongoing delays for the Airbus A380. I guess their audience of predominantly pilots are also tech geeks and like manufacturing, as they just dived into the factory side of the 787 supply chain.
Far from the 787 final assembly line, two facilities in north
Charleston, South Carolina were established to manufacture and
integrate fuselage barrels for the Dreamliner.
The Vought plant fabricates the two aft barrels of the fuselage,
Sections 47 and 48. Next door, Global Aeronautica integrates structural
sections from Japan and Italy. Alenia delivers sections 44 and 46 from
Grottaglie, Italy, while Fuji and Kawasaki Heavy Industries deliver Section 43 and Section 45/11, the centre wing box and main
landing gear wheel well. The four sections are joined, stuffed with
systems, wiring and ducting then shipped to Everett.
That’s a chunk of airplane, "far from the 787 final assembly line," which then needs to somehow get to Everett on that neat trick of supply "innovation" called the Dreamlifter. If only it was assembled next door to Everett like in the old days, using those 20,000+ Boeing employees that were laid off several years ago… But let’s move on.
Each site was designed as an ultra-lean facility with a highly
trained staff capable of signing off on the airworthiness of their own
work. Boeing saw this as the next generation of aerospace manufacturing
teams of "super mechanics" would build the 787. Each "super mechanic"
would hold multiple manufacturing certifications to expedite the
production process to build a greater degree of quality assurance
directly into the integration of the aircraft.
But rather than
a highly trained staff, Global Aeronautica and Vought were peopled by
mechanics whose expertise lay outside aerospace. One Boeing veteran
says that some staff had no manufacturing background. The
skills that staff brought to the 787 were not applicable to building
aircraft. "The folks working on the floor say if we can build a fire
truck or a fork lift, we can build an aircraft," says a veteran Boeing
engineer in Charleston. "It doesn’t work that way. It’s an aerospace
state of mind, and it isn’t here."
Lack of expertise among the
workforce caused quality workmanship to suffer, resulting in
time-consuming fixes that had to be completed in Charleston, delaying
delivery or slowing final assembly.
Using highly-trained staff to self-check work is definitely along lean lines, compared to the old method of using the cheapest pair of hands available and then inspecting, reworking, and reinspecting by a series of QA gates. But "ultra lean"…? I have no idea what that means, especially in a world of supply chain nonsense populated by Dreamlifters. They couldn’t find people with aerospace experience? I bet there are a few thousand around Everett… But once again, let’s move on.
Global Aeronautica built in "locked steps" for assembly that must be
completed before future milestones can take place. As the centre
fuselage sections transition through the assembly process, each centre
section must pass through assembly "cells". The first cell is where
structural sections are joined and aligned and the second cell is for
continued assembly and early installation of wiring and insulation. These
"locked steps’ prevented the centre fuselage from being moved between
assembly cells unless a certain percentage of fasteners are installed.
Cells are nice. "Locked steps" (presumably "one piece flow" in the non- "ultra lean" world), are good. But I’d really prefer if ALL the fasteners were installed. I hope someone remembers to check that before I take my first ride in a 787. But there’s more! And you don’t even need to buy some ginzu knives!
During the 10 October delay announcement, Scott Carson said: "I like
the Charleston factory. I like having it next to Vought. We like having
Vought as a partner. If there’s a lesson learned, it might be you’d
start earlier and do a little more training, perhaps with our people
there. But there’s no fundamental flaw in Charleston."
Except that it is three thousand miles away from the final assembly operation, and three thousand miles away from thousands of people with aerospace experience. Nothing fundamental.