Consulting Firm Suggests Solutions to Aircraft Program Delays

 - September 10, 2010, 7:49 AM
The Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787, both of which appeared at July’s Farnborough airshow, each suffered through delays approaching three years. Neither airframer correctly assessed the respective projects’ complexity, an independent consultant insists. (Photo: David McIntosh)

David Bonnus, cofounder of Paris-based Step Consulting, recently analyzed the causes of major aerospace program delays and suggested how airframers could better keep to their schedules. The release of the analysis comes as Boeing, Airbus and others keep struggling with program delays. It bears the stamp of common sense, which some big companies’ executives seem to have lost under financial pressure.

The first of Bonnus’s five major causes boils down to over-optimism. At the planning stage, companies do not fully recognize the challenges inherent in the technology and team organization, according to Bonnus. They do foresee difficulties, but tend to “bet” all of them will not happen–or not simultaneously. “This has led to breakthroughs such as the Boeing 747 or Concorde but is no good for keeping on schedule,” Bonnus said.

Moreover, unripe technologies combine with aircraft complexity, making development uncontrollable. An aircraft’s part count numbers on the order of one million, compared with an automobile’s 10,000, Bonnus said. There are thousands of interfaces. Add technology uncertainty–moving from metal to composites, for instance–and nobody can straddle such a wild horse, he contends.

The third reason lies with the overly heavy workload of design offices, as manufacturers try to develop several programs simultaneously. One airframer–which Bonnus did not name–had assessed the number of design programs it could handle at the same time as 1.6. “There are now five programs going on at Airbus–the A380, A350 XWB, A400M, A320 replacement and A320 winglets–and as many at Boeing,” he said.

OEMs often consider outsourcing, which is not an option for core design skills, as a cure-all. However, such an approach increases external risk. Bonnus emphasized that outsourced work packages tend to be bigger and assigned on a non-industrial basis. He asserted that, for instance, Boeing recruited Mitsubishi for the 787’s wing in hope of winning Japanese orders for the aircraft.

The fifth reason, Bonnus said, is the so-called “delay knock-on effect.” If an OEM launches a program before completing the previous one, a delay in the first will make the second one late as well. This has happened in the case of the A380 and the A400M.

Bonnus's suggested solutions include, first, higher technology readiness. He also proposes that work sharing should be fair–he advises airframers to stop imposing contracts that leave smaller partners “out of pocket.” Another idea, among others, is technical simplification. For example, OEMs should limit the number of technical interfaces between subassemblies, he said.