After years of struggle, Boeing is finding new efficiencies in the way it builds its cutting-edge 787.

What a difference a year makes! In 2005, it seemed Airbus (Toulouse, France) had become an unstoppable force in the world of aircraft manufacture. For the fifth year in a row, the company would log more commercial jet orders than any other company-1,055 to be exact. It was also celebrating the maiden flight of its new A380 super jumbo. Capable of hauling 555 passengers or 150 tons of freight nearly 8,000 miles, it looked like the aircraft was going to revolutionize the airline industry, knocking the iconic 747 off its king-sized perch.

For its part, archrival Boeing (Chicago) seemed helpless to do anything about it. Although it was still churning out smaller, single-aisle 737s at a record pace, it found itself mired in a corruption scandal over the way it had secured contracts with the Pentagon for its KC-767 aerial tanker. At the same time, the company's groundbreaking 787 Dreamliner, scheduled to take its maiden flight in late 2007, seemed like just that-a distant dream.

But, a funny thing happened on the way to Airbus world dominance. For one thing, A380 engineers have struggled to keep their plane from weighing too much. This is a critical concern, because a heavier airplane means customers will either have to reduce payloads or burn more fuel. The aircraft is also proving difficult to produce because of the complexity of wiring various onboard entertainment systems. This past spring, Airbus announced yet another 6-month delay, which is infuriating customers and could cost the manufacturer billions in penalties.

Then there's the 787, the first large commercial aircraft in aviation history to be constructed predominantly of carbon fiber. Every week brings news of a fresh batch of orders. To date Boeing has firm contracts or commitments with around 30 different airlines for more than 400 airplanes, making it the most successful commercial airplane launch in history. The 787 development program also seems to be moving ahead very nicely. The company recently announced it had completed 25 percent of the program's design releases, nailing down the shape and structure of major elements like the aircraft's fuselage and wing skins. Gleaming state-of-the-art facilities are popping up around the globe to support manufacture of the aircraft.

Even the recent surge in energy prices has proved a kind of windfall: Thanks to its light weight and super-efficient engines, the 787 is anticipated to cost 20 percent less to operate and 30 percent less to maintain than conventional, aluminum-frame aircraft. This constitutes a very compelling selling point, especially since the A350-Airbus' last-minute, patched-together response to the 787-hasn't been able to keep pace.

"Every way we look at it-the number of customers, the variety of customers in terms of location and business model, the number of orders and even repeat business-we couldn't be happier," says Mike Bair, vice president and general manager of the 787 program. "We are bringing the right airplane to the market."

All of a sudden, the dream is becoming a reality.

Getting Things Right

From Boeing's perspective, the turnaround is an especially satisfying one, thanks to the fact that it has been the result of a change in thinking from the top to the very bottom of the company. Twenty years ago, Boeing was in many ways a company adrift. Granted, it was still making a lot of airplanes. But cracks were appearing in the edifice as it strove to fight off the competition.

At the heart of Boeing's manufacturing problems were the twin issues of efficiency and productivity, which the company has attacked through what it calls the Boeing Production System. Central to this effort has been an almost fanatical dedication to lean manufacturing. Between 1993 and 1998, some 1,500 Boeing employees from all levels of the organization traveled to Japan to see how Toyota gets things done firsthand. The Boeing system also includes a heavy helping of Six Sigma methodologies to root out quality problems before they become major assembly issues.

The result has been an empowered workforce that takes an active role in influencing how Boeing puts its airplanes together. For example, small groups called "moonshine" units are continually finding smart, often low-tech solutions to ongoing assembly problems. Six Sigma teams throughout the organization work to root out quality problems wherever they occur, be it in a Boeing facility or somewhere along the supply chain.

On a larger scale, the new approach is evident in the way the company is turning to small, mobile assembly jigs, as opposed to the huge fixed scaffolding structures that historically surrounded each aircraft under construction. For example, when the 777 aircraft first went into production in 1995, it spent much of its time almost entirely hidden by a vast framework of fixturing. Today, Boeing is transitioning to a much leaner process in which everything from systems installation to the final body join of major fuselage sections will be performed with the help of cradle-equipped moving platforms called "crawlers."

The new approach is also evident in Boeing's celebrated use of auto-industry-inspired moving production lines. First implemented in the company's 717 assembly facility in Long Beach, CA, the practice has since been incorporated into Boeing's 737 facility in Renton, WA, and is currently being put into place at the 777 line in Everett, WA.

In the case of the 787, which will be built in the same gigantic building as the 777, Boeing originally planned on using a moving line similar to that of the 737. But, it has since reconsidered, because of the complexity of the aircraft. At this point, Boeing is not saying much regarding final assembly of the 787. But, earlier this year the Seattle Times reported the company was looking at using "small-scale tooling jigs" that will be wheeled to where each aircraft is assembled in fixed position.

The main thing is that, by putting its new analytical methodologies to work, Boeing is able to achieve unprecedented efficiencies. Thus far, the company has cut the required time for building a 737 from 22 to 11 days. When the 787 ramps up to full production, Boeing hopes to turn out an aircraft in about 6 days. Eventually, Boeing hopes to build a 787 in about half a week.

Snap-fit Aircraft

Vital to these kinds of extraordinary production schedules is an increasing reliance on outsourcing, for everything from doors to landing gear to complete fuselage sections and wings.

Ironically, in taking this approach, Boeing is very much mimicking its French-based archrival. A multinational consortium that includes member companies in France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain, Airbus has long employed far-flung factories to manufacture the components that make up its aircraft. These often very large parts must then travel to a final assembly facility by a variety of means, including trains, barges and oversized airplanes.

In the case of the 787, Boeing is not only outsourcing an unprecedented amount of work to suppliers, it is outsourcing components of unprecedented complexity. For example, a trio of Japanese companies-Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Fuji Heavy Industries, all in Nagoya, Japan-is responsible for building the aircraft's wings and wing box, the reinforced unit that secures the wings to the fuselage and anchors the aircraft's main landing gear. Similarly, Alenia Aeronautica (Grottaglie, Italy) and Vought Aircraft Industries Inc. (Dallas) will build much of the center and aft fuselage; a trio of Chinese firms will fabricate wing fairings and the leading and trailing edge of the vertical fin; and Spirit AeroSystems Inc. (Wichita, KS) will build the forward fuselage section that houses the cockpit.

In all, approximately 3 million square feet of new factory space is being built at 135 sites in two dozen countries around the world to support manufacture of the 787. Ultimately, analysts predict that Boeing will only perform about 35 percent of the actual fabrication work on the 787. However, company officials insist they are not giving up the farm for short-term gain. In fact, they say that 90 percent of value-add effort will still be done in-house, in the United States.

"We are not just an airplane company, we are a key element of a global transportation system," says recently retired Boeing vice president of development, Walt Gillette, summing up the new way of thinking. Specifically, according to Gillette, Boeing has decided to focus on those things it does best: large-scale systems integration; lean and effective global design and production; working with exotic metals like titanium and the composites; and interpreting the needs of the airline industry.

Granted, this approach is a new one for Boeing. But, Gillette insists that in changing the way it builds airplanes, the company is implementing lessons that it learned by observing successful companies in the automotive, shipbuilding and consumer electronics industries.

"[This] gets us out of the boutique business and gets us out into the general world," Gillette says, referring to the labor-intensive, semicustom, in-house approach Boeing took in building airplanes in the past. "The 787 really demonstrates our core competencies."

It also helps distribute both the risk and cost of doing business. That 3 million square feet of manufacturing space doesn't come cheap, so it just makes good sense to have somebody else pick up the bill wherever possible.

This is especially the case given the extensive use of composites. Some commentators have voiced both surprise and concern over the fact that for the first time an outsider will be responsible for building Boeing's wings. However, in addition to the fact that Japan is a leading supplier of carbon fiber, it means Boeing's Japanese partners will be covering the cost of the enormous autoclave ovens necessary to work with carbon fiber on such a large scale.

Then, of course, there is the inevitable political component. It's no coincidence that Japan's All Nippon Airways Co. (Tokyo) will take delivery of the very first 787 and has ordered 50 airplanes in all.

"This is a global undertaking," Gillette says, summing up the way Boeing is tackling the project. "The team is a virtual team."

"When I look at this piece of structure coming together, I know that we are seeing the future of our industry," Bair said during a recent visit to the Fuji Heavy Industries plant. "We have introduced new materials, new processes, new tools and a new way of working together that is ushering in a new era in commercial aviation."

All Together Now

As is the case with Airbus, Boeing and its suppliers will employ a smorgasbord of technologies to bring the many parts together for final assembly in Everett, including a trio of modified 747s called Large Cargo Freighters. There are also dozens of other subsidiary pieces of equipment being built to handle different components while in transit. For example, equipment manufacturer TLD Canada (Sherbrooke, Quebec) recently unveiled a 118-foot contraption that looks like a gigantic version of the baggage-handling machines you often see at airports to load fuselage sections onto the 747 freighters. Boeing will also employ barges to move wing and wing box elements between the various fabricators and assemblers doing work in Japan.

As part of the fuselage assembly process, the freighters will first pick up a pair of center fuselage sections from Alenia in Italy and fly them to the United States to be joined to a 38-foot-long aft fuselage section manufactured by Vought in Charleston, SC. Another freighter will bring in a forward fuselage section from Nagoya, which is also attached to the fuselage. The resulting 84-foot tube will then be placed on yet another freighter for the flight to the Boeing final assembly plant in Everett. Once there, Boeing operators will attach the nose of the airplane, manufactured by Spirit AeroSystems and also flown in by modified 747.

Factor in the flights that will be necessary to bring in other major components like the 787's horizontal stabilizers and fin, and you're talking about a lot of air miles. Indeed, Boeing officials are already saying they may need more Large Cargo Freighters to handle the load, once production is up and running.

Nonetheless, by outsourcing the grunt work of fabricating large subsystems, Boeing is able to concentrate on the big picture, in the process making itself that much more efficient.

"From the very beginning creating the Dreamliner has been guided with an eye toward final assembly," Gillette says. "It simply provides better value to divide up the plane into large chunks."

Again, in terms of the details of final assembly, Boeing is playing its cards close to its chest, and things are still very much evolving. However, streamlined, efficient assembly has been a goal since the very beginning on the 787 effort.

For example, by going with a one-piece carbon fiber fuselage structure, Boeing will do away with 1,500 separate sheets and 40,000 to 50,000 mechanical fasteners that would have been necessary if it had been made out of aluminum. Granted, there will still be plenty of threaded fasteners backing up adhesives in countless hybrid joints. However, the savings in terms of numbers of parts will still be impressive. In the fuselage alone, the company will reduce the number of fasteners by approximately 80 percent.

Similarly, the 787 will incorporate advanced electric motors to power its onboard systems, as opposed to the complex pneumatic systems that are powered by hot, high-pressure air diverted from the engines on conventional airplanes. This approach, in addition to providing increased engine efficiency, eliminates the need for the various manifolds, valves and ducts traditionally used to power an aircraft's secondary systems. It will also help Boeing eliminate approximately 60 miles of copper wiring from the 787.

Finally, as is the case with the 737, expect to see extensive use of kits- dollies that include a complete set of tools and materials for each assembly operation. Also, expect to see plenty of feeder lines, providing ready-to-install subassemblies on a just-in-time basis. In the aircraft business, these lines can provide big gains by allowing operators to perform assembly operations out in the open, as opposed to in tight quarters once a component has been installed in, say, a wing.

Ultimately, Gillette says that the Boeing approach to creating an assembly process for a large aircraft is analogous to the historic building of the transcontinental railroad. Guided by a set of core values and principles-in Boeing's case, quality, safety and each aircraft's performance characteristics-the company is constantly learning from experience, and improving.

"You can survey the entire thing, then build, or survey a few miles ahead [and learn] as you go," says Gillette. "Sometimes you make mistakes, but you keep going....This way you're continually doing things better."