It was the summer of 2006, the Boeing Dreamliner 787 was still just a dream and I was interviewing Boeing’s now retired vice president of commercial development for a cover story on the 787. “We are not just an airplane company,” he told me. “We are a key element of a global transportation system.”
To this end, Boeing had decided to focus on those tasks it supposedly did best: large-scale systems integration; lean and effective global design and production; working with exotic metals like titanium and composites; interpreting the needs of the airline industry.
One thing it did not plan on doing was getting its hands dirty building things like wings and fuselage sections. Apparently this was no longer one of the company’s “core competencies.” Why bother with drilling holes and running wires, when you could just as easily have somebody do the job for you in Italy, China or Japan?
Fast forward to 2008-Turns out building wings and fuselages sections is a lot tougher than it looks, same thing for managing a complex global supply chain. First there was the fastener shortage. After that came a bunch of fuselage sections from a supplier in South Carolina that hadn’t been correctly prepared for final assembly at the company’s plant in Everett, WA. Now Boeing has discovered that as many as 3 percent of the fasteners in a number of the 787’s major subassemblies are being installed incorrectly. Apparently the company is going to have to find, remove and then put every one of those fasteners back in again.
During the recent machinists strike at Boeing, outsourcing was a major bone of contention. The union’s position was that its workers are worth the higher wages they command because they know what they are doing. Granted on paper it seems cheaper to have someone do the grunt work overseas or in a non-union shop on the other side of the continent. But then again, there is something to be said for experience. Doing things right the first time can often end up saving big money in the end.
Here at ASSEMBLY magazine, we are staunch proponents of companies doing whatever it takes to be competitive-that includes outsourcing. However, we have also cautioned companies to be sure and look at the “big picture” before shipping their work elsewhere in the interest of easy “cost savings.” Just because the actual process of assembling a product is easy for you, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy for everybody. Just because they’re less glamorous, that doesn’t mean tasks like running wire, installing rivets and, oh yeah, quality assurance, are any less important than all that headwork being done by the guys in the fancy suits.