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Was Boeing Dreamliner 787 Production Schedule a Dream?

Boeing is in expensive trouble with its 787 Dreamliner, which the aircraft maker promotes as the most advanced airliner in the world. A groundbreaking level of attention has been paid to production ergonomics with this plane, largely directed at keeping Dreamliners flying off the assembly line, yet it is months behind schedule. The question of whether the Dreamliner production schedule was always a dream awaits future studies by macroergonomists and others. For the present, the company and one of its unions are blaming outsourcing.

Boeing describes the Dreamliner as a super-efficient airplane. It brings the long range performance of big jets to a mid-size plane, the company says, because as much as 50 percent of the primary structure – including the fuselage and wing – is made of lightweight composite materials. The innovation amounts to “a nearly two-generation jump in technology for the middle of the market,” according to Boeing.

The plane is highly sought after because the innovations are expected to make it 20 percent cheaper to fly and a third less costly to maintain than older jets.

It was a best seller even before the first Dreamliner was unveiled on July 8, 2007, at the Boeing Everett factory in Washington state. The company maintains it is the best-selling plane in aviation history. At the most recent count, in January 2008, 55 customers from six continents had placed orders for 841 Dreamliners.

Ergonomics Given a Place at the Table

Ergonomics was given a central role from the start, and the program, led by Rich Gardner, CPE, has been widely acclaimed. Gardner, who joined Boeing as a systems engineering engineer for Human Factors and Ergonomics in 1997, was recognized recently by his peers when he became the first Boeing team member to receive the Ergonomics Professional of the Year award from the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society.

In a May 2007 company news release, Scott Strode, 787 vice president of Airplane Definition and Production, said, "The 787 not only will revolutionize air travel, it represents a new way of building airplanes."

The airframe is built of lightweight composites in six pieces – the forward, center and aft fuselage sections, the wings, the horizontal stabilizer and the vertical fin. The pieces are brought together in the final assembly. Boeing says that by manufacturing a one-piece fuselage section, it is eliminating 1,500 aluminum sheets and 40,000 – 50,000 fasteners.

Since the 787 is assembled from these large assemblies rather than many smaller pieces, traditional monument assembly tools are not necessary. Boeing’s product literature explains that portable tools, designed around ergonomics principles, move the assemblies into place, and no overhead cranes are used to move structural elements of the plane.

The program gives particular emphasis to the design phase where changes are easier and more affordable, according to Gardner in a Boeing article. “Due to the increased awareness of ergonomics and advances in design capabilities, we now have a seat at the design table. Ergonomists are using the same tools and speaking the same language as the design engineers, and this makes it much easier to communicate and resolve the issues that in the past may not have been discovered until parts were being assembled in the factory.”

Gardner and team were in a position to contribute while parts were being created, versus trying to work on them after the design was complete. They always wanted to get ergonomics into the hands of the designer to strengthen the relationship between design and manufacturing teams, he said. “We’ve made great strides in this direction on the 787 program with engineers developing their designs in collaboration with those who build the airplanes.”

The ergonomist said they were given the opportunity early in the development of the Dreamliner to create design requirements that specifically address worker safety and ergonomics attributes, “so instead of suggesting to designers that they ought to consider ergonomics in their designs, we now have design requirements that tell them they must do so.”

The team also addressed the design of heavy interior features, such as galleys, passenger seats and lavatories. They pushed to get lifting points incorporated into the designs so objects could be handled with equipment instead of by hand. And the space inside the aircraft and placement of components was organized with an eye to efficiency and easier access to systems.

To ensure that the tools were safe and functional, the team also created a process to review and approve all factory tooling designs before they were released for use.

Gardner also pioneered the use of virtual reality technology in the design. Engineers, wearing 3-D glasses, operated hand controls to take them through simulated assembly processes portrayed in real time on a giant screen.

“It immerses you into designs and manufacturing problems areas, allowing you to reach quicker solutions,” Gardner explained. “This technology reduces the need to build expensive physical mockups to evaluate access, reach and visualize parameters during the design phase. This helps us to catch things that may not have been discovered until after production commences, when making changes is more difficult.”

Expensive Woes

“Although the first airplane will take about seven weeks to assemble,” the company said on the Dreamliner web site, “the 787 team looks to continuously improve flow time as production ramps up. Ultimately, a 787 will roll out of the factory every three days.”

That italicized prediction wasn’t even close. The Dreamliner is now nine months behind schedule, and its troubles are not over. The aircraft maker announced it has reduced 2008 sales targets for the second time in four months because of the delays. Revenue forecasts for the current year have been cut by $500 million to a reduced range of $67-68 billion.

The company can count on additional financial blows if disappointed customers demand reparations or cancel their orders. The company’s engineers union, which represents workers on the twice-delayed 787, and its machinists union, are also aggrieved about the delays. The grievances could also cost money when contract negotiations with the engineers come up in December.

Boeing said in a news release on January 17 that continued troubles in its supply chain and in assembling the first Dreamliner have once again pushed its maiden flight ahead by three months. The delivery of the first plane to a customer, Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA), has been pushed into 2009. A Dreamliner launch partner, ANA has ordered 50 of the planes. Japan Airlines has ordered 55.

ANA has twice seen its deliveries bumped in recent months, after originally planning to take its first 787s early this year ahead of the Beijing Olympics this summer.

While ANA was still trying to assess the financial impact, Australia’s Jetstar, a subsidiary of Qantas which has 15 of the 787s on order, was quick to say it would seek compensation from Boeing, according to an recent Agence France Press news story, though no formal talks are planned.


Boeing decided early to outsource many of the Dreamliner’s requirements. In its own words, the company created a partnership program, signing on 43 of “the world’s most capable top-tier supplier partners,” and together finalized the airplane’s configuration in September 2005. It has been working with its top-tier suppliers since the early detailed design phase of the program and all are connected virtually at 135 sites around the world. The company notes that 11 of the partners from around the world c
ompleted facility construction for a total of 3 million additional square feet to create their major structures and bring the next new airplane to market.

The company blames many of its problems with the plane on outsourcing. "The fundamental design and technologies of the 787 remain sound," said Scott Carson, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, in a February 4 report in Aeronews Net, an aviation industry publication. "However, we continue to be challenged by start-up issues in our factory and in our extended global supply-chain."

The union and members of the International Association of Machinists agree, and have complained about the unprecedented level of outsourced work on the 787 program. Unfinished Dreamliner parts from suppliers, known as "travel work," have postponed the jetliner’s delivery by at least eight months and are being completed by Boeing’s union employees. Overtime could be an expensive addition to the 787’s debit sheet .

It can be argued that the early production phase of a new aircraft is a testing experience for any aircraft manufacturer. When it tried to meet delivery deadlines for it’s A-380 super jumbo jet, Europe’s Airbus company suffered, but survived, many of the problems Boeing is experiencing now.

Arguably, Boeing’s self-congratulatory tone about its three-day production rate has contributed to its financial problems with the 787 because it generated unrealistic expectations. If nothing else, Boeing’s problems should make manufacturers in many industries more aware of the real cost of outsourcing.

Sources: Boeing; Agence France Press, Times (London); Bloomberg news service; Aeronews Net

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-02-06.