Boeing getting a handle on 787 ‘traveled work’ problems

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This was the 787’s state of production in early December. The first unit (dedicated to flight testing) was nearing completion while the two ground-test units were undergoing major assembly.

“If there’s anything that we have learned over this past three months, it’s that we underestimated how long it would take to complete someone else’s work.”

That was the blunt assessment of Boeing’s Pat Shanahan, 787 Vice President and General Manager, during a January 16 conference call announcing another three-month delay—from the end of the first quarter in 2008 to the end of second quarter—for first flight. Boeing is pushing back first delivery from late 2008 to early 2009.

“We designed our factory to be a lean operation, and the tools and the processes, the flow of material, the skill of the personnel are all tailored to perform last-stage high-level integration checkout and test,” he said. “We thought we could modify that production system and accommodate the ‘traveled work’ from our suppliers. We were wrong. If we had been set up more like an MRO, I really believe we would have made more progress.”

Declining to specify which partners are most responsible for so-called traveled work (work that the partners agreed to but for whatever reason have been unable to perform before shipping their sections of the aircraft to Boeing’s Seattle-area final-assembly plant), Shanahan said the company is focusing on reducing the amount of undone partner work that is most disruptive to the final-assembly scheme.

Both Shanahan and Scott Carson, President and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, expressed confidence that the company can stick to its new target for first flight—despite having delayed it three times. The last delay was announced in October.

“We have a very clear assessment of the work that remains to be done and how we will do it, and from that assessment we have set this revised schedule for first flight,” Carson said. “Building on our commitment to first flight, we are also working with our suppliers to assess our schedule on the airplanes following number one to make sure they meet the required condition of assembly and reduce the amount of traveled work coming into Everett. This assessment, which will also include discussions with our customers, will determine the details of our flight-test and delivery schedules. We expect to complete this assessment by the end of the first quarter.”

Carson noted that Boeing has committed more resources to tackle the supply-chain problems. Those resources will be based at the Everett plant as well as at partner plants.

Shanahan, who took over as head of the 787 program in October, said: “Why am I more confident that this is a better plan? October’s plan was based more on analysis. The case is, we have not done our partners’ work in our facility before. There’s no history there. There is no demonstrated performance, and we did not have a detailed statement of work. That plan was really kind of rooted in parametrics and very limited experience.

“I’m confident we will execute this plan because we have demonstrated performance over the last three months. We have more experience and knowledge of the work statement. We have more of the right skills and the resources, and we have a comprehensive and detailed plan in the process to get that done.

“But let me go into more of the specifics. Specifically, I can see a path forward based on how much work we have completed. We have made significant progress in completing the primary structure. I can see a path forward based on the part shortages and the fastener shortages being reduced dramatically from where they were several months ago. When I look at the condition of the aircraft, the wings are in good shape in the critical fuselage areas. In a few weeks we will be routing wires through the airplane. The wire bundles are done. The extra time we’ve had here has given us more opportunity to test the functionality of those bundles. We incorporated the change in engineering into those bundles, and I’m confident that the functionality we require … will be there.

“And probably most importantly, the plan that we have laid out is parametrically consistent with demonstrated performance we have had on other programs in the past. Based on the combination of all those things, empirical data, analytics from past programs, and our day-to-day work progress, I’m confident that we’ve got the right plan, and it’s really about focus and execution.”

Shanahan dismissed rumors that part of the 787’s delay owns to unanticipated problems with systems.

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