Inside Boeing’s 787 Factory

The Dreamliner’s quiet revolution

The 787 composite airframe has been subjected to extreme temperatures ranging from –65 to 165 degrees Fahrenheit (at Eglin Air Force Base.) (© Boeing)
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Four floors up, the staff of the 787 Production Integration Center (PIC) have a commanding view of the assembly line. But it pales compared with the total picture of the process they get from the 10-foot-high, 40-foot-long video wall before them. Raw data relating to the production of 787 components around the world merges in the room like a confluence of swift-running mountain streams. It’s displayed in larger-than-life fashion to 25 “focals”—each a point person for a specific duty—occupying computer terminals in the PIC, 24/7. “We get involved in everything you can imagine,” says Tox Popnoe, the center’s energetic manager. “Anything that affects the production or the schedule of the 787 program.”

Seventy percent of Dreamliner components are outsourced to manufacturers worldwide. Kinks in the supply chain, mostly resulting, Boeing admits, from insufficient oversight or stress testing of its myriad suppliers, have plagued the program from the start. From fasteners to flight guidance software, from Foggia, Italy, to Charleston, South Carolina, delivery delays or component quality-control failures have incited increasingly hardball measures from Boeing, up to and including buying the under-performing partner outright and upgrading operations to Boeing standards. To monitor the health of the chain, the integration center eyeballs production of the larger components on which day-to-day assembly of the Dreamliner relies, from manufacture to installation.

The Integrated Production Visibility (IPV) software figuratively perches on the shoulders of makers of fuselage segments, wings, and other major structures. “We track our Tier One partners: the Japanese, the Italians, and the domestic partners,” Popnoe says. The IPV window displays a real-time pictorial representation of each supplier’s factory flow, from the beginning of production to the time the component ships. “It’s an incredible dashboard,” Popnoe says. “We can tell where all the problem areas are, regardless of geographic location. We know how many jobs they have to complete and whether they have any issues.” Color-coded graphs divulge all at a glance: Green is “on-plan,” yellow is off-plan by one to two days, red is off-plan by two days or more.

“Issues” is a big word in here. Any major one with a supplier manifests as a colored icon on a racetrack display with a 48-hour finish line. “A major issue is defined as anything that affects a shipment coming to final assembly,” Popnoe says. “Someone can call here 24/7 and say ‘Hey, I’ve got this engineering issue in Japan and we need help to ship this section on time.’ That’s when the red light really goes on.” As the icon moves down the timeline, people in the room hand off the problem to shifts around the clock until it’s resolved—and sometimes that must be done in just hours to avoid line delays.

The production trail and present location of every 787 in process at Everett shows up on a “chicken tracks” display on the video wall. Digital maps update the current positions of all four Dreamlifters, the radically modified 747-400s that transport major assemblies of the 787. The big airplanes are in frequent transit and, as production ramps up, will fly almost constantly.

To the people monitoring the progress of 787 components, a major earthquake is just one more issue. Popnoe points out a screen displaying seismic data worldwide. If a quake strikes near a 787 production facility, Boeing knows immediately. The urgency is not limited to potential shipment interruptions. Delicately calibrated equipment at sites producing the composite wing and other components is not exactly temblor-friendly. “Our quality requirement states that if a facility has calibrated tooling on the program and there’s a 5.0 quake within a 50-mile radius, we have to go in and verify the tooling is still properly calibrated,” Popnoe explains. Otherwise, misalignment could occur in fuselage segments or wing-to-body joins. With 35 percent of the 787 produced in quake-prone Japan, that’s a real concern, particularly after the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. (After the earthquake, production equipment was recalibrated at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries.) Hurricanes are also tracked here, and a news window keeps the integration center apprised of political uprisings or labor strikes around the world that might affect 787 final assembly in Everett or South Carolina.

Production data in the PIC pipeline flows both ways at Boeing. “People downstream know what work is coming at them,” Popnoe says. “And we assimilate it up to our leaders, who make the educated decisions about how to keep the project on track and on schedule.”

The first Dreamliner is carrying ticket-buying passengers. The airliner—which received the 2011 Robert J. Collier Trophy, awarded for the greatest achievement in aeronautics in America—is already sold out through 2019, and Boeing assembly lines are shifting into overdrive to turn them out at a rate outpacing any other wide-body in the industry. Today Fancher declares flatly, “We firmly believe the 787 represents the biggest sea change in commercial aviation since the introduction of the 707.” Feedback from the global traveling public is not yet in. But on a publicity tour flying various Japanese citizens’ groups to celebrate the first delivery to All Nippon Airways, Fancher got a sample of Japan’s take on its new airliner. Even in heavy weather, “thousands of people came out to see the 787 everywhere we went,” he says. During a stop at Yokohama, Fancher ducked into the terminal to grab a cup of coffee and was soon recognized by 787 fans. One woman approached excitedly with a little girl in tow, he recalls. Fancher marvels: “She said, ‘Please, can you take a picture with my daughter?’ This woman had driven three hours and stood out in a cold driving rain to see the 787.”

When I spoke to him in Everett, the program manager was still smiling over the airliner’s rock-star reception. But there was a production system to ramp up, 873 Dreamliners on back order to 60 customers around the world, and the next variant of the airplane in development already. As soon as delivery number one was in the hands of ANA, “we breathed a big sigh of relief,” Fancher reported. “For maybe three days. Then back to hard work.”

Frequent contributor Stephen Joiner writes about aviation from his home in southern California.


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