October 01, 2012
Credit: Photo Credit: Boeing
Guy Norris Los Angeles
Boeing is understandably cautious when it comes to using the words “promises” and “787'” in the same sentence, but with a little more than three months to go before the start of final assembly of the first stretched version, it is already projecting a far smoother development path ahead for the 787-9.
The derivative has hit the 85% design drawing release point while assembly of all the large subassemblies for the first aircraft is beginning. All this is happening as Boeing marks the first anniversary of the initial 787-8 delivery to launch customer All Nippon Airways and comes as deliveries hit 25 aircraft.
However, Boeing is not fooling itself and knows that both the progress on the 787-9 and the accelerating deliveries of the 787-8 remain silver linings of a dark cloud still hanging over the company and its revenues after years of delays and problems. The bottom line is that deliveries still have a long way to go to match the rising production tempo and that, if the history of the 787 is anything to go by, Boeing would be wise to expect the unexpected when it comes to development of the stretch.
It is due to the hard-won experience on the 787-8, though, that progress on the extended fuselage variant is edging ahead of schedule, says vice president and chief project engineer for the 787, Mike Sinnett. “From a production standpoint, all the major structural pieces are in initial build. In a lot of cases, we're early. It's a significantly different spot we're in than we were with the -8,” he says.
While always intended to be a transformational aircraft for the operators, the 787 has ended up transforming Boeing in more ways than was ever anticipated. Beyond launching it on the path to more electric, more composite aircraft and modular assembly processes, the 787's huge development costs made its leaders gun-shy over opting for the New Small Airplane instead of a reengined 737 in the face of competition from the A320NEO. Similarly, Boeing's product development office continues to burn the midnight oil over the potentially costly 777X project. Memories of expensive triage for the 787 lurk in the shadows as Boeing weighs pivotal wing and engine decisions for the next generation of its larger sibling.
Industrially, the rescue effort also expanded Boeing's production footprint for the 787 well beyond that originally planned, with unexpected factory acquisitions in South Carolina and Utah. But it is now the same much-maligned production system that is starting to crank out 787s to a build standard that, according to Sinnett, is actively contributing to the better-than-expected performance of the first batch of aircraft to enter service.
“We are getting cleaner aircraft. When we designed it with an all-composite wing and fuselage, we were conservative,” he says. “Then, as we started looking at weight-reduction changes and we rolled in things like the improved wingbox and the results of full-scale fatigue and static tests, this allowed us to be less conservative.” The result is, “we're seeing some level of surprise that it is performing as well as it is. You always want to talk yourself into thinking that something is not quite right, but its performance is basically spot on,” Sinnett adds. “There was a misconception in part because of the weight challenges early on. People expected the initial aircraft would be heavy, and maybe they are by a little bit, but even the early aircraft are performing to specification.”