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New Problems Add Delay to Boeing 787 Rollout

Wed, 08/19/2009 - 5:51am
DANIEL LOVERING

Editor's Note: Tell me again about how much money outsourcing saves?

boeing 787 planeBoeing Co. has discovered another problem with its long-delayed 787 jetliner, prompting the aircraft maker to halt production of fuselage sections at a factory in Italy.

The Chicago-based company found microscopic wrinkles in the skin of the 787's fuselage and ordered Italian supplier Alenia Aeronautica to stop making sections on June 23, spokeswoman Lori Gunter said Friday. Boeing has started patching the areas.

The plane, built for fuel efficiency from lightweight carbon composite parts, is a priority for Boeing as it struggles with dwindling orders amid the global recession.

It remains unclear how the latest 787 glitch will affect the airplane's inaugural test flight and deliveries. Production has been fraught with problems. Ill-fitting parts and other difficulties have hampered the process and cast doubt on Boeing's strategy of relying on overseas suppliers to build big sections of the aircraft before assembling them at its facilities near Seattle.

In June, Boeing postponed the plane's first test flight and deliveries for a fifth time because of a separate structural problem.

Before that delay, customers had expected the first of the new jets in the first quarter of 2010 — nearly two years behind schedule. The delays have cost Boeing credibility and billions of dollars in anticipated expenses and penalties.

Boeing has not announced a revised schedule, but Gunter said that would happen before the end of September. Some airlines have been forced to cancel or postpone plans to buy new 787s. Orders for 72 of the planes were canceled this year through Aug. 11.

The mid-size aircraft is designed to carry 210 to 330 passengers and includes wider seats and aisles, larger windows and a ventilation system that will allow for higher humidity, all of which Boeing says will make the cabin more comfortable.

Alenia Aeronautica, a subsidiary of Finmeccanica, has been building fuselages for the plane at a specially built factory in Grottaglie, Italy. From there, the fuselages are shipped to a plant in Charleston, S.C. aboard a modified 747.

The latest problem consists of tiny wrinkles in the fuselage skin on either side of the plane, just behind the wings. To repair them, new layers of carbon composite material are being added to a 787 at the South Carolina factory. Twenty-two other planes also must be patched, at the South Carolina plant and at factories in Everett, Wash., and Italy.

"In two areas on the fuselage, the structure doesn't have the long-term strength that we want," Boeing's Gunter said.

Boeing is designing a permanent fix to the wrinkle problem so future versions of the plane won't have to be modified. The existing fuselage wrinkles, she said, will not compromise the flight safety of the 787s.

The company's June 23 order for Alenia to stop producing fuselage barrels came the same day as Boeing's announcement that it was further postponing the 787 because of another structural problem, but Gunter said that was coincidental.

Boeing said tests had shown it needed to reinforce areas where the plane's wings join the fuselage.

History of the Boeing 787

Here is a summary of the company's effort to build the first passenger plane made from lightweight carbon composite parts rather than metal:

ORIGINS — On Dec. 20, 2002, Boeing officially drops plans for the Sonic Cruiser, which would have traveled near the speed of sound, and on Jan. 29, 2003, the company establishes a leadership team for the 7E7, its first all-new airplane since the 777 in 1990. Composites are chosen as the primary material the next June.

STARTUP — All Nippon Airways of Japan orders 50 of the planes, and Boeing's board of directors approves the launch of the 7E7 program on April 26, 2004. In January 2005 the model name is changed to the 787, and at the end of the year the first deliveries are set for early summer 2008.

FIRST GLITCHES — Boeing announces on June 9, 2006, that bubbles have been found in the composites used in a 33-foot prototype of a section of the fuselage. On Nov. 6, 2006, Boeing says it's confident the plane can be lightened by about 2.5 tons, enough to make it the most fuel-efficient commercial jet in the air.

SALES — Sales exceed 500 planes by April 3, 2007, and Boeing begins looking for ways to accelerate production.

MORE GLITCHES — Boeing reveals production snags on June 12, 2007, including a gap where the left side of the nose-and-cockpit section is out of alignment with the fuselage. Another problem is an industrywide shortage of fasteners that hold the plane together.

FIRST DELAYS — On Sept. 5, 2007, Boeing says the 787 will begin flight testing in mid-November or mid-December, months later than originally planned. On Oct. 10, 2007, Boeing delays first deliveries by six months.

PERSONNEL CHANGE — Boeing announces on Oct. 16, 2007, that Michael B. Bair, vice president and general manager of the 787 program for the past three years, has been replaced by Patrick M. Shanahan, previously head of Boeing's missile defense systems in Wichita, Kan. Bair is named vice president of business strategy and marketing and, on Oct. 31, 2007, says some suppliers of major components for the 787 have fallen short of Boeing's expectations.

PROMISES, PROMISES — On Dec. 11, 2007, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Scott E. Carson says there will be no further delay in 787 development, but a three-month delay is announced on Jan. 16, 2008, and an additional six-month stall is announced on April 9, 2008, postponing the projected debut of commercial service to the third quarter of 2009 — the third revision to the delivery schedule and the fourth change in plans for first test flight.

LABOR DISPUTE — An eight-week strike by the Machinists union that began Sept. 6, 2008, and lingering production problems, including installation of improper fasteners, pushes the first test flight into the second quarter of 2009 and first deliveries into the first quarter of 2010 — the fourth schedule shift, making the first 787 nearly two years late. The top issue in the strike is job security as union members maintain that if more of the key production had been in-house instead of by subcontractors, the 787 would have been completed before the walkout.

ANOTHER HANGUP — On June 23, 2009, Boeing announces that flight tests will be delayed an undetermined number of weeks for the design and installation of reinforcements along the upper part of the place where the wings join the fuselage. Carson says deliveries also will be pushed back.

LATEST TROUBLE — On Aug. 14, Boeing says it discovered microscopic wrinkles in the 787's fuselage skin and is installing a patch consisting of additional layers of carbon composite material. The company says it had ordered Italian supplier Alenia Aeronautica to halt production of the fuselage sections on June 23. It says the glitch was unrelated to the other structural problem announced that day.

 
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