Amid all the coverage of the recent unveiling of Boeing Co.’s new composite jetliner, the 787 Dreamliner, perhaps the most impressive image of all was the one at right. Granted, there’s no close-up of Tom Brokaw singing for his supper as master of ceremonies. Nor is there a happy crowd of flight attendants in colorful national garb. Nonetheless, this image is nothing less than revolutionary in terms of what it says about the current state of aerospace manufacture.
For years now, Boeing engineers and managers have been saying the 787 would be different. Instead of being built from scratch on-site at the company’s plant in Everett, WA, it would be assembled from large, prefabricated components flown in by 747. The actual fabrication of these components, including everything from complete fuselage sections (Spirit Aerosystems, United States) to wings (Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Japan) to various tail sections (China), would fall to a limited number of major “partners” in North America, Europe and Asia. The idea was that by outsourcing the grunt work of designing and producing the tens of thousands of subassemblies that make up each aircraft, Boeing could focus on what it does best-reading the market and performing major systems integration, in the process shaving millions off the purchase price for each airplane.
And now, there it is, for all to see: big airplane pieces, recently arrived from various suppliers, lining up for final assembly. Note the absence of the monolithic assembly jigs that Boeing once relied on. Also note the relative scarcity of workers. Gone are the crowds of machinists installing the shims and rivets that were part and parcel of aircraft assembly in the past.
By way of comparison, check out the image below, which shows how Boeing used to build its 737. Granted, the 787 is not yet in full production, but you will never see a half-dozen 787 fuselages in lying about in various states the way you do here. Until recently, during final assembly, each 777-which has had its assembly line revamped to make room for the 787-would be almost completely hidden by a gigantic web of scaffolding.
Ultimately, this is the real reason for the Dreamliner’s success, its far-reaching supply chain, coupled with its manufacturing efficiency. As Airbus is learning the hard way, the true miracle of modern aviation is not that commercial jets can be built bigger and better than in the past: It’s that commercial jets can be built bigger and better more economically.
By putting its energy into rethinking the way it makes airplanes Boeing has rewritten the book in terms of aviation manufacturing. The result has been a spectacular success that will be analyzed by business professionals for years to come. This is the real drama behind the recent 787 unveiling.