With the risks in technology and market timing inherent in bringing out a new airplane, it is no wonder that Boeing’s senior management wants all the flexibility it can muster as it considers whether to bet big on a New Small Airplane (NSA) successor to the 737 Next Generation family or be more conservative by re-engining the NGs.
At Boeing’s Renton factory south of Seattle, 737 General Manager and Boeing Vice President Beverly Wyse presides over a leaned-out manufacturing line that theoretically could produce as many as 63 aircraft a month from facilities that date to World War II. That is about twice today’s rate. “We’re using our tried-and-true tactics in lean manufacturing” to keep up, she says, as the company heads to 42 airplanes per month in 2014.
| MICHAEL MECHAM/AW&ST |
Will Renton be home to the NSA? “We would have to have a lot more clarity than we have today on what the transition to the new aircraft will look like,” says Wyse.
Clearly, the company needs to commit to the new airplane before it has to worry about its factory floor. But it is not too early to draw some conclusions about how the NSA is likely to shape up in terms of design and manufacturing.
Boeing may have a black eye from the billions of dollars it has lost in 787 cost overruns and the strains its development has imposed on suppliers and the company’s own machinists and engineers.
But that airplane has changed the industry’s dialogue in terms of materials, design, manufacturing processes and market impact. Count on its concepts—from composite materials to an electric architecture and, yes, even supplier relationships—to heavily influence the NSA.
Although Boeing Chairman and CEO Jim McNerney has told investors to expect an answer on the NSA versus re-engining question by year-end, that target may slide. “Our customers have reiterated, ‘Take your time, Boeing. Get it right,’” says Vice President Nicole Piasecki, the chief business strategist. “We don’t feel rushed to make a decision or respond to Airbus.”
When Boeing made lightweight, non-corroding composites its material of choice for the 787, the aluminum industry was caught off-guard. Now, seven years later, Alcoa says it has new alloys that are competitive.
Boeing is studying them. But McNerney says Boeing’s R&D teams are “on fire” with the promise that advances in composites hold for production savings. Boeing’s faith in the advantages of the 787’s single-piece composite fuselage assemblies runs very strong. So that approach is the front-runner for the NSA.
But the new airplane’s wing may be another matter. The issue with composites is whether they can be scaled down successfully without losing their weight and strength advantages. At this point, Piasecki is saying only that wings more than fuselages are what need a lot of study.
The quick turnaround nature of regional operations means that many of the flight-deck enhancements that work well on a long-distance 787 are probably unnecessary for the NSA, she says. However, Boeing is committed to a greater use of electronic systems even if the 787’s computers and software gave its designers headaches.
Back to Renton. The 737 factories there are Boeing’s star performers in lean manufacturing. It is too soon to say whether Boeing will squeeze NSA onto the Renton site or opt for a factory elsewhere. But if a new factory is the answer, the 787 will inform its development.
Boeing’s giant widebody factory in Everett may be the world’s largest, but its size has drawbacks. For one thing, having assembly bays next to each other blocks access to the assembly floor from the side.
In South Carolina, the second 787 final assembly line is a stand-alone building not hemmed in by other operations. So suppliers themselves can be called on to feed parts and assemblies onto the floor from all directions, boosting the plant’s efficiency, says Boeing’s general manager of supply chain management, Vice President Ray Connor.
Everett’s unionized machinists vigorously protest allowing suppliers onto the floor, but that is not a problem in non-union South Carolina.
Much has been made about Boeing’s use of converted 747s as freighters to bring in large assemblies for the 787. Less has been said about another part of the airplane’s feeder system. Goodrich built a 140,000-sq.-ft. aerostructures facility next to the Everett factory where it integrates thrust reversers, nacelles and engines from Rolls-Royce or General Electric. These completed engine units are then simply wheeled to awaiting 787s on a just-in-time delivery basis.
Longtime Boeing observers say this Toyota-like supplier ring model is likely to be a star of the NSA factory.