31 October 2007

787 Program still not out of the woods - Bair points a finger

The outgoing, recently ousted, Boeing 787 Dreamliner program manager Mike Bair has publically pointed the finger at the much vaunted Global Supply Chain system for delay problems with the new wonder plane. At this week's scheduled quarterly meeting of the Snohomish County EDC, Bair kept a pre-arranged date to give a breakfast address in Everett. He didn't hold any punches.

Much like then head of Boeing Commercial, Alan Mullay's famous comment on Washington State' competitiveness in 2003 (Quote "We suck"), Bair pointed the finger at key players in the supply chain. Afterward, Bair declined specifically to name the suppliers Boeing "won't use again." He said he was referring not just to the six first-tier airframe partners — Alenia of Italy; Mitsubishi, Fuji and Kawasaki of Japan; Spirit of Wichita (spun out from Boeing), Kansas.; Vought of Texas — but also to some of their suppliers in the second tier.

Bair made his comments pointedly at the key global supply chain partners and of course Boeing's own management of it: "That whole production system is built for 1,200 pieces. ... Everything about it was designed for 1,200 parts," he said. "We threw 30,000 at it, " indicating the Chicago based company's misunderstanding of the complexity of the processes.

It has been well understood by industry insiders that Boeing's management process was built around a system of delegation and responsibility of the individual supply chain partners. IE that the partners had to be totally responsible for design, fit and functionality of each of their chunks of the process. Boeing would then have hit teams who would act as fire fighters flying to supply chain hiccoughs and fixing the problems. The idea looks great in the boardroom and on a white board. Not so easy in practice as Airbus has learned throughout the years.

So who are the guilty parties? While we have no definitive information, we can speculate through process of elimination. Sources inside Boeing have indicated that there has been a lot of activity of Boeing engineers making European trips. With the Japanese partners being well show cased by Boeing we can only imagine that there has been less than satisfactory performance from other of the vendors.

So what is the impact on the 787 program and Boeing for the future?

Immediately we anticipate that Boeing managers will be taking a hands on role in resolving some of the issues at the problem partner/suppliers. At this stage they cannot bring the production facility back in house because there is no "in-house" facility to bring it to. With Spirit (Formerly Boeing Wichita) a separate company - there are no production capabilities that could be added without long lead time and factory facilities being created. As for a reason, " ...some of them proved incapable of doing it," Bair said. In the interview after his speech, he expressed frustration that some partners seemed "unwilling, for whatever reason." "They just didn't do what we thought they could do," Bair said. "Who knows why?"

For the long term future his will impact the 737 Replacement narrow body designed for launch and in-service by approximately 2015. Some news reporters regarded this as a boost for the Puget Sound (Seattle) region. Not so fast. For a 2015 date, selection of the manufacturing site would likely be made at least five years earlier. At one point, explaining the reason for the 787's global supply chain, Bair said it was difficult to ask the Japanese to invest money and then build their sections somewhere else than Japan.

So is the supersite concept that he outlined — supplier factories located alongside final assembly — really practical? "I don't think it's outside the realm of what may have to be done," Bair said in the interview afterward. "Toyota builds as many cars here in the U.S. as in Japan." A supersite approach would make the next aircraft assembly operation a bigger prize than the 787 plant, which has not attracted many supplier jobs to Washington. Boeing has spent millions in hiring in ex-Toyota managers as well as sending engineers and managers to Japan to understand a car like production platform for its aircraft.

So we can expect for the next 2 years a lot of PR war of words flying around as Boeing is courted to build the next gen production facility for the 737FG (Future Generation) aircraft. One thing is for certain - it won’t be Renton. I will lay bets on that one. There just isn’t enough space at the current production line for that. Since the sale of land nearby for a shopping mall and office development; only if Paccar (ironically builders of Mack and Peterbilt brand trucks) could be persuaded to move would there be anything like the room for such a supersite. Highly unlikely when there are so many other competing and suitable sites. Plus with many states itching to land the supersite - we can be assured that Texas, Alabama and California would be in the running.

"The right way to do this would be to have all those big parts across the street so you could just roll them in," Bair told his audience. "We'll see on the next airplane programs whether we can accomplish something like that." And who says it has to be in the USA?

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