Boeing has finished modifying the lithium-ion battery systems on all 50 of its 787 Dreamliners in the field and all the airplanes’ operators have re-launched service. The last modification–performed in late May–effectively marked the culmination of a four-month ordeal for the company during which aviation authorities around the world grounded the entire fleet of 787s following two separate incidences of overheated batteries in mid-January. Now Boeing can finally refocus its attention on delivery execution and meeting original target specifications on weight, for example. It can also return to bargaining with potential new customers that had postponed acquisition deliberations until the manufacturer resolved the crisis.
Singapore Airlines broke the commercial stalemate late last month with an order for thirty 787-10s, leaving many anticipating an industrial launch of the program during this week’s Paris Air Show. During a pre-Paris media gathering in late May at Boeing’s installations in Everett and Renton, Washington, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of marketing and business development Mike Bair noted a particular surge in interest in the proposed 290- to 330-seat Dreamliner, plans for which call for a fairly straightforward stretch of the 250- to 290-seat 787-9.
“We’re out trawling the -10X; likely that airplane will launch this year,” said Bair. “We had a bit of a pause while we were playing with batteries…Nobody was interested in signing up for more airplanes while the airplanes were on the ground, but that’s behind us now. So we’re starting to get a lot of activity going on the 10X.”
Notwithstanding the lull in sales talks during the grounding, production of the 787-8 continued apace, rates broke to seven a month in early May and industrial activity on the 787-9 never slowed. Boeing displayed visual proof of the progress of the 787-9 sat on display during a May 29 tour of the Everett factory, where on the 787 “surge line” large sections of the first airplane sat ready for final assembly a day later. Scheduled for rollout and first flight this summer, the 787-9 has benefitted immeasurably from “lessons learned” on the delay-plagued 787-8, according to 787 chief project engineer Mike Sinnett.
“The whole process has improved dramatically since the 787-8 went into final assembly,” said Sinnett. “We’ve got not only a very clean production line; not only are we moving along at rate very cleanly with very little traveled work, we’ve also got extra time built into the production schedule for the first three -9s to account for anything we need to learn that we haven’t learned yet.”
Sinnett explained that the delays to the 787-8 involved not only new technologies, but also new production processes, perhaps most notably those associated with carbon fiber. Although Boeing had used the material before, the production of one-piece barrels and very large wing skins presented new challenges, as did the unprecedented level of work distribution to partners around the world.
When Boeing began working on the -9, it had resolved technical hitches associated with tooling and materials systems and “tweaked” the supply chain, added Sinnett, thereby removing the distractions that diverted attention away from the company’s usual product development processes.
“It really went more like clockwork,” said Sinnett. “The engineering was released either on time or ahead of time. We put together a very disciplined test plan for the labs, and the [tests] pretty much went according to plan…Because we didn’t have to invent so much new during the -9, we were able to follow a much more disciplined process, and I see that not only in the engineering design and the testing, but also in the manufacturing and how we’ve come up to rate and the quality of the assemblies as they arrive in Everett.”
This year’s schedules call for delivery of “more than 60” 787-8s, five of which Boeing had sent to customers between the time the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration cleared the airplanes for resumption of service in late April and the end of last month. Although he expressed confidence that Boeing will meet the target, Sinnett called it a challenge. “We’ve got our work cut out for us, that’s for sure,” he said.
Meanwhile, Boeing continues to meet weight loss “block points,” according to Sinnett, while it revisits efforts to increase ETOPS limits from 180 minutes to 330 minutes. Boeing hopes to gain certification for 330 minutes in time for scheduled first delivery early next year to Air New Zealand, whose original delivery guarantees called for the increased ETOPS limits.
Sinnett noted that Boeing had already demonstrated a 330-minute ETOPS diversion during certification with only one of the airplane’s six starter generators operating. Investigators traced the loss of a single generator channel in two separate incidents of power panel failures, in one case forcing a United Airlines 787 to divert during a revenue flight. The other case occurred during a delivery flight of a Qatar Airways airplane.
“The concern there may have been overstated,” said Sinnett. “It’s not something we want to see happen; it’s a reliability issue, we’ve addressed it. But from a safety perspective there were still five of the six generators [operating].”
Sinnett said the failures resulted from “an issue” in the layers of the circuit board. In response, Boeing developed a way to “screen” the panels to subject them to a lifetime of power transience to try to induce a failure. “The power panel went through that screening without any faults,” he stressed. “We have a high degree of confidence that those power panels will be good for the rest of their service life.” o