To help build the Boeing 787's composite fuselage, Italy spends a bundle.
- By Joe Pappalardo
- Air & Space magazine, July 2007
(Page 2 of 5)
If Caruso is right and the future is in composites, then Alenia Aeronautica’s fortunes rest on the company’s performance during the Dreamliner contract. Alenia must get a factory up and running in time to meet the relentlessly demanding schedule of the 787 program, which requires the coordination of major partners in three nations. Boeing and its partners have committed to delivering 112 Dreamliners by the end of 2009. The first deliveries, to All Nippon Airways, will begin next May, about a year and a half away from Alenia’s pre-production tests. For the aeronautics executives in charge of the daily grind, this is a career maker or breaker.
During a tour of the plant last October, Rosini was bearing the balance of risk and excitement comfortably. Only with considerable prodding did he admit that at night, during his frequent overnight stays near the plant, about 200 miles away from his family in Naples, he could not stop thinking of the long list of tasks that needed to be done at Alenia’s giant facility.
Hundreds of engineers from companies in Japan, Italy, and the United States worked from June 2003 to October 2005 at Boeing’s facility in Everett, Washington, to lock in the final design decisions for the 787. Boeing had determined the requirements: The Dreamliner would seat 250 passengers and fly with ranges and speeds comparable to those of wide-body ocean-crossers like the 747 and 777. It would be economical to operate and maintain because it would be built of lightweight composites (and have super-efficient engines, not then designed). Engineers from all of Boeing’s first-tier contractors figured out how to meet those requirements.
With the Dreamliner, Boeing implemented an even more collaborative approach to building an airliner than the engineering process it used on the 777, famous as the first airliner to be designed and “mocked up” entirely by computer. On the 777, the engineering was concurrent; Boeing gave customers, subcontractors, even maintenance professionals access to computer design files so that problems from any of those quarters—“We can’t build this part that way” or “I can’t reach that light to replace it”—could be worked out in the preliminary phase, before a single rivet was fastened.
On the new airliner, Boeing involved its suppliers not just in the design but in the development of the technology required to build the airplane.
“With the 787, we involved [major contractors] earlier and deeply in the development process,” says Bob Noble, the director of 787 operations within Boeing’s supplier organization, Global Partners. “It allowed us to learn from one another in new ways and allowed very focused investments that will have long-term benefits to the program. I can’t imagine ever doing a program without this kind of partnering.”
Both Boeing and Airbus—the only true prime manufacturers left in the cutthroat airliner industry—have changed the way they work with subcontractors. Instead of hiring a company to supply, say, a wing, the prime asks for the wing plus all the subsystems within it. The giants provide coordination during planning but minimal guidance during execution. They oversee only the first-tier contractors—and expect those contractors to oversee the long chain of suppliers.
“In the new business model, they want to be the guy at the end of the day that just snaps the components together,” says Eric Hugel, who analyzes the aviation industry as vice president of the U.S. investment bank Stephens Inc.