'Power on' milestone nears for Boeing's 787
Boeing invited reporters into its 98-acre production area Monday to show that the aircraft maker has overcome parts shortages and hiccups in its new, decentralized manufacturing model and is making steady progress toward the 787's much-delayed first flight.
Last month, Boeing postponed the jet's debut in commercial service until the third quarter of 2009. The latest delay was the third revision to its delivery schedule. The delays will likely cost the company billions of dollars in additional costs and penalties. Inside the massive hangar, four planes were lined up nose-to-tail in varying states of completion. Patrick Shanahan, general manager for the 787 program, said the mood on the assembly floor had shifted from frustrated to fired-up in the last two months as the installation of critical systems on Plane No. 1 neared completion.
But despite seven-day work weeks, Shanahan also said he expects some of the pieces of the first plane to come together at the last moment in a "photo finish," and joked that someone tosses the equivalent of a grenade into his office every half hour or so. Powering up the 787 for the first time -- a major milestone, but one of many that remain before Boeing can deliver the first of its new planes -- will show the company how successful its next-generation production model really is. The company relied almost entirely on outside companies around the world to manufacture, test and put together major parts of the aircraft before shipping them to Everett for final assembly.
The 787, Boeing's first newly designed jet since airlines started flying the 777 in 1995, will be the world's first large commercial airplane made mostly of carbon-fiber composites, which are lighter and more durable than aluminum and don't corrode like metals. Boeing says it will be cheaper to maintain and offer greater fuel efficiency than comparable planes flying today.
The final assembly phase was meant to be less labor-intensive than the assembly of traditional metal commercial airplanes. As an example, Shanahan said workers had to drill more than a million holes to assemble a 747 but less than 10,000 to put together the major components of a 787.
But Plane No. 1, which sits at the front of the production line, arrived in Washington with far fewer parts pre-installed than Boeing expected. The factory floor wasn't designed to accommodate the extra work, as evidenced by ad-hoc scaffolding that still surrounds the planes, and local laborers were left with a much longer to-do list than they had planned. Shanahan said partner companies have since gained a clearer understanding of what's required. He reported that the fourth plane's components arrived in Everett much closer to the state in which Boeing expected them.
Beyond the power-on testing, the 787 must clear several hurdles to assure the Federal Aviation Administration that it's ready for commercial service. In early July, engineers are set to begin a monthslong process of testing the plane's structural limits by simulating extreme conditions in a second, nearby hangar. During that so-called "static testing" phase, engineers will compare the test results with their predictions about how the 787, with its new materials, design and manufacturing process, should fare in extreme conditions.
Once static testing is complete, Boeing will send six of the 787s into the air to test everything from how they handle at different altitudes and in different climates to how noisy it is in the cabin. Assuming all goes well, Plane No. 7 will be delivered to All Nippon Airways in the third quarter of 2009, even as a years-long process of fatigue testing -- meant to simulate decades of commercial service -- continues. At each phase, Shanahan said feedback from testing is likely to force Boeing and its partners to change the manufacturing and assembly process.
"Somebody will call me with their hair on fire," he said. "It's normal."