Boeing's Dreamliner chief sticking to schedule
The new troubleshooter in charge of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner said Tuesday he has seen significant progress in just eight weeks at the helm...
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
The new troubleshooter in charge of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner said Tuesday he has seen significant progress in just eight weeks at the helm. Despite the previously acknowledged six- to seven-month delay in first flight, he intends to stick to the jet program's aggressive new schedule of building 109 Dreamliners by the end of 2009.
Pat Shanahan, 787 vice president and general manager, said he is attacking the jet program's manufacturing problems with tighter processes, minute attention to scheduling details — and constant meetings.
"We meet daily in the factory within yards of the first airplane," Shanahan said. "I personally meet with the senior managers for three to four hours a night to review progress."
Videoconference reviews with Boeing's global partners, Shanahan said, "have the same sense of urgency and intensity" as the meetings in Everett.
In a confident Tuesday teleconference with Wall Street analysts and journalists, Shanahan shared his approach to solving the multiple problems behind the program delay — including fastener shortages and the incomplete fuselage sections delivered to Everett by Boeing's global supply partners.
"This team previously had been trying to brute force through some of these obstacles," Shanahan said. "We now have detailed processes."
"I can tell you every open hole on airplane No. 1," he said. "We've mapped every open hole to every fastener that we need. And we've mapped every fastener that we need to an availability date."
He said "there are no real physics problems involved here" in completing the first airplane.
"It's just a lot of detail ... It's these small things that we're chasing that are really frustrating us."
Shanahan took control of the program in October, replacing Mike Bair, after Boeing announced the delay.
Both Shanahan and his boss, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Scott Carson, repeatedly praised the 787's global manufacturing model, despite the intense supply-chain problems.
They seemed to distance themselves from remarks made by Bair just weeks after he was ousted from the program. At a business breakfast in Everett, Bair had expressed frustration with some of the global partners, saying, "Some of these guys we won't use again."
Asked directly about those remarks Tuesday, Carson minimized their significance.
"It was a difficult time for Michael," he said. "He'd gone through an awful lot of change."
Shanahan said there has been appreciable progress in recent weeks to unblock the final assembly bottleneck in Everett.
Until recently, the delay on Dreamliner No. 1 was holding up other airplanes. It has finally moved forward and three jets are lined up in production.
The primary structure of Dreamliner 1 is largely completed, and mechanics are beginning to install systems and insulation blankets in the cabin walls.
"It's starting to get crowded with people working on the airplane," Shanahan said.
The second and third airplanes are the fatigue-test and static-test planes. One will have its structural parts cycled through several lifetimes in ground tests, and the other will be tested well beyond normal load limits to destruction.
For both of those airplanes, Shanahan said, "the condition of assembly is much improved over airplane 1."
He faced the most skepticism Tuesday over his assertion that Boeing can speedily make up a six-month delay in the initial delivery and by the end of 2009 deliver just three fewer Dreamliners than originally planned.
The intention now is to fly the airplane in the spring, have six test-flight planes in the air by the summer, deliver it to the first customer at the end of next year, then rapidly ramp up production.
"Of course, the plan assumes no major unknowns are uncovered in flight test," Shanahan conceded.
To deliver 109 planes by 2009, Boeing plans to build about 40 in 2008 before first delivery. In the first 18 months of production, it must churn out an average of almost six Dreamliners a month, something never achieved so quickly on previous widebody aircraft such as the 777.
Questioned closely on why he is confident it's possible, Shanahan said the new way of making the airplane in large pieces — baking huge, single-piece fuselage sections made from composite plastic in massive ovens — will transform the production ramp-up.
"It's designed dramatically differently than a 777," he said. "The degree of automation is much different. We don't have all of those mechanics driving fasteners and doing the hand operations that we did on the 777."
Shanahan said a visit to the plant of Boeing's Italian partner Alenia had impressed upon him the "unbelievable" and "simply spectacular" nature of the new technology.
"I was blown away when I went to Italy and saw these barrels being assembled," he said. "I've never in my life before seen defect-free fuselages."
But Shanahan admitted that significant challenges remain. He mentioned that Boeing's partner Fuji is shipping the center structural box that holds the 787 wings to Charleston, S.C., with some structural fasteners missing. And the structure around some doors, supplied by Israel Aircraft Industries of Tel Aviv, is shipping with missing brackets and parts.
Despite Shanahan's upbeat report, analysts remained skeptical. On a day when the markets were down more than 2 percent, Boeing's stock fell about twice as much, closing at $88.70.
"If you were worried, there's lots of reasons to worry still," said Joe Campbell of Lehman Brothers. "There are some bright signs, but not enough to quit worrying."
And apparently not enough for Shanahan to get much rest.
At Boeing's research facility on East Marginal Way South in Seattle, test pilots are already trying out the 787 flight-control software on a simulator, and Shanahan is keeping a close eye even on that — perhaps to squeeze some midnight fun into his schedule.
"Every once in a while," he said, "I get to spend time with our chief pilot and fly the simulator late at night."
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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