We’ve all been there… those last few weeks or months before a new product launches. Orders have been taken, excitement is building, the expectation of riches in the air. Just a few minor engineering hurdles to overcome before the champagne is uncorked. Then those minor challenges become major headaches, especially when schedules are aggressive, managers are under pressure, and prospective customers are fuming. You sometimes start to wonder if it’s all worth it, and daydream about a job making pineapple juice in Tahiti.
Such must be the atmosphere at Boeing these days. To their credit the upcoming 787 is a beautiful plane with incredible technology and engineering. It promises to take air travel to a new level of comfort while significantly reducing maintenance and fuel costs. We have criticized them for their supply chain convolutions while still claiming to be lean, but we also recognize the political realities of selling such high dollar products.
Flight testing has been delayed four months until December, but the company still plans on delivering the first jet in May. A neat trick that many stretched suppliers are skeptical of, and today’s Wall Street Journal gives us a flavor of what that entails. Just to get the first flight test unit going,
Boeing still must install hundreds of parts, including the pilots’ controls and instruments. Suppliers such as Honeywell must finish writing their portions of more than six million lines of computer code that will run everything on the plane from the flight controls to the electronic window shades. After that a complex web of electrical wiring and computer equipment must be checked to see that all of the various systems on the airplane work in unison. That leaves roughly four to eight weeks for safety engineers to work out the bugs for its first flight.
Think about that during your next project crunch, which probably doesn’t involve a nine-figure machine designed to carry a couple hundred potential liability lawsuits throught the air. There are probably some Boeing engineers right now daydreaming about making furniture or coffeemakers. Or maybe not… Boeing hires the best, and the best like challenges. Even when it requires launching a few hundred tons of metal into the air for the first time.
I just hope Boeing’s leadership is focused on ensuring the job is done right, not just right now. I’m sure that the enormous stakes of safety still outweigh timeline considerations. But sometimes I wonder about lesser attributes.
Mr. Blair [VP in charge of Dreamliner development] said Boeing is spending much of its attention on getting the production system ready to churn out multiple airplanes "because that’s what’s important: delivering airplanes."
Actually, designing a safe, reliable, efficient plane that adds value to their customer is what’s important. Being able to deliver multiple planes is the cream on the cake. Maybe they should focus a bit more on the first few units.
Suppliers at factories in Italy, Japan, and the U.S. continue to experience chronic parts shortages that have slowed the completion of another six flight-test airplanes that must be finished no later than January or early February.
Boeing itself created some of these delays.
Boeing was as much as eight months late delivering detailed specifications tot he companies that were expected to do the bulk of the manufacturing of the airplane and its systems. Boeing officials acknowledge that they contributed to the initial delays, but they said "recovery plans" had largely eliminated those setbacks.
Ah yes… the same "recovery plans" that many of us have experienced. Usually an overstressed manager saying "get it done by this date or else" without any real leadership in how to do it. And one of those recovery plans is creating a decidedly non-lean situation:
The schedule is so tight that Boeing officials say they need to have about 42 airplanes mostly ready for delivery by the time the test-flight program is completed. If that doesn’t happen, delays could cascade through the production schedule for as long as two years.
Now exactly where do you store 42 airplanes waiting for final completion? That is one full tarmack. And I wonder what happens if a problem is found during flight testing that needs to be fixed… on 42 units in process. There’s a reason why one piece flow works.
Perhaps some planning could have been done better, but I’m confident Boeing will work through these issues and this new feat of engineering will be in the air at some point next year. The next few months will be exciting to watch, and best wishes coupled with a few tons of java beans and Tylenol for those engineers and workers in the middle of it all. They’ll deserve their champagne at the end.