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Composite fuselage sections for Boeing's 787 are being made in four factories around the world. (Boeingmedia.com)

Alenia's Gamble

To help build the Boeing 787's composite fuselage, Italy spends a bundle.

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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.

Alenia Aeronautica (a descendant of airplane builders Fiat and Aeritalia) was an obvious choice to be a major player in the 787 program. Besides developing and supplying the outboard flap for the 777, the longest piece of composite structure on the aircraft, Alenia supplied subassemblies for three earlier Boeing airliners and has been a partner on the tanker/transport version of the Boeing 767 since 2001. Partnering with Alenia has helped Boeing reach European buyers; the Italian air force ordered four 767 tanker/transports at about the same time Boeing and Alenia signed the partnership agreement.

Besides fabricating fuselage barrels for the 787, Alenia is tasked with designing and manufacturing the horizontal stabilizer, and also performs static and fatigue trials on the piece. Alenia is the only supplier engaged in this level of complex testing on Boeing’s behalf. The fabrication work is being done in a plant in the town of Foggia, while the testing is done at a facility outside Naples.

As part of the state-owned conglomerate Finmeccanica, Alenia has sometimes suffered from the layers of bureaucracy and political pressures imposed on a nationalized industry. In Italy, as elsewhere in Europe, politics directly affects a company’s strategy. Through a process known as concertazione (consensus formation), in 1993 labor unions secured a powerful voice in the government’s formation of economic and social policy.
“The system operates to discourage changes such as relocations and the entry of new firms,” wrote Edmund Phelps, last year’s Nobel Prize winner for economics, in an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal. “What it lacks in flexibility it tries to compensate for in technological sophistication.”

That philosophy explains the large investments—courtesy of the Italian taxpayers—in cutting-edge machines and techniques. “We looked around the world for partners who understood composite technologies, had experience with commercial airplanes, and had the corporate will to engage in a complex industrialization effort,” says Noble of Global Partners. “Alenia fit the requirements.”

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