Pivotal Period for Boeing as Civil Programs Progress On Cue

 - May 1, 2014, 4:02 PM
A Rolls-Royce-powered 787-9 test airplane stands parked at Seattle's Boeing Field following a round of function and reliability testing. (Photo: Gregory Polek)

Characterizing the Boeing 777X program as “stable” and the 787-9 as “lighter than projected,” Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president of airplane development Scott Fancher issued an upbeat assessment of virtually all he surveys during press briefings at the company’s Everett, Washington, facilities on Tuesday. Estimates cited by Fancher suggest that aircraft under development right now will account for more than half of the company’s commercial airplane sales over the next two decades, meaning the very future of the Boeing division rests on the successful execution of program goals today and in the coming few years. According to Fancher, the market has already spoken and “loudly” in support of Boeing’s approach and execution.

Now approaching the end of its development and testing program, the 787-9 represents the company’s next big test following an admittedly painful process of entry into service of its smaller sibling, the 787-8. In terms of the 787-9’s flight-test program, Fancher reported “no show stoppers” as Boeing prepares to deliver the first airplane to Air New Zealand this summer.

“Engineering on the 787-9 was released ahead of schedule,” said Fancher. “So the system that we put in place is beginning to make a difference.”

The system to which Fancher referred traces its genesis to the formation about a year and a half ago of the new airplane development organization he heads. “Along with that we brought a single integrated management system to our development efforts, a management system that’s really focused on executing with discipline, developing the talent needed to carry through these developments over the next ten years, and a very consistent management system so that we’re able to translate talent from program to program in order to ensure consistency of execution,” said Fancher.

That consistency, said Fancher, resulted in a lighter-than-expected 787-9 airframe, in part due to items such as a change from what program head Mark Jenks described as a “built up” titanium surround structure originally designed for the 787-8 cockpit windows to a simpler, one-piece aluminum structure for the 787-9.

Meanwhile, the biggest Dreamliner—the 787-10—“is coming along as expected,” drawing orders for 132 units from six customers, all of which Fancher called industry leaders. A “simple” stretch of the 787-9, the 787-10 carries an exceptional level of commonality with its smaller sibling and, in fact, the same exact maximum takeoff weight. “But stretching the airplane still presents us with a challenge for maintaining this commonality,” said Fancher. “And to date we’ve achieved and actually exceeded the degree of commonality we targeted for the airplane.” Not only does that characteristic translate into lower maintenance costs for the customer, explained Fancher, it theoretically means fewer disruptions in Boeing’s production system.

The need for production system efficiency applies especially to the 737 and what will become the 737 Max, as Boeing prepares to raise rates to 47 airplanes a month in 2017, right around the time it starts the transition from the NG to the re-engined narrowbody. Full assembly of the first Max starts later this year, flight testing in 2016 and entry into service during the third quarter of 2017.

Finally, the 777X, scheduled for entry into service in 2020, continues to progress through preliminary design phases as Boeing maintains what Fancher called a very stable configuration. “The airplane that we launched last fall is the airplane we have today, and it’s the airplane that we began offering a year earlier,” said Fancher. “That allows our teams to really focus on the preliminary design phase without a lot of variability, without a lot of churn.”

The 777X, featuring “fourth generation” composite wings and new GE9X engines, will employ the same wing design team that worked on the 787, said Fancher, meaning that many of the same engineers will bring lessons learned from their Dreamliner assignments. “There’s some things that you try in any complicated development program that don’t work out so well, and we’ve learned from those as well and made adjustments to our detailed plans based on those learnings,” he noted.

Apart from GE, Boeing has named only landing gear maker Héroux-Devtek as a supplier for the 777X. Nevertheless, said Fancher, Boeing “is well along” in the process of choosing suppliers. “We have plans for the entire airplane,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t have alternatives we’re considering; we do. That doesn’t mean we won’t be conducting competitions; we will. But we have a game plan, a roadmap, through all of those questions and answers that we need, and we have for quite some time.”