787 program update

Boeing today (May 21) gave aerospace analysts an update on the 787 program at the annual investors’ day. Key points:

  • There are now more engineers working on the -9 than on the -8, a major change;
  • Executing the flight test program in 8 1/2 months will be a challenge;
  • Resources from across the Boeing enterprise will be required to meet the flight test timeline;
  • Certification with three regulatory agencies progressing well;
  • There will be “bumps in the road;”
  • The “sun never sets” on the 787 production system (a reference to the global industrial production system);
  • The -9 will speak to the “heart of the economic proposition” of this aircraft;
  • The key to the -9 is not to forget the lessons learned on the -8;
  • As the market conditions solidify, we’ll be moving into the -3 (some time after -9 EIS in 2013);
  • Firm configuration for the -9 later this year.

From our attendance at the Media Day for the 787 program last month, we can tell our readers that Boeing’s plan for the 8 1/2 timeline makes sense (at least to journalists in attendance who, whatever the depth of knowledge, are still laymen). Boeing plans to fly the planes about eight hours a day and perform necessary maintenance, tests, modifications and applications of testing equipment during the the other 16 hours. This is what Boeing means by a 24/7 flight test operation.

Boeing also reduces time on planned transitions from one test mode to another, a benefit of advancements in technology between the 777 test program (which took 11 months) and today. The timetable for unplanned discoveries in the flight testing program between the 777 and the 787 remains the same. Nonetheless, Boeing acknowledged then and reiterated on the investors’ day discussion that the schedule is aggressive and challenging.

From the Q&A of the investors’ day come these points:

  • There are good risk mitigations in place to handle known and unknown risks to meet planned production rates and ramp-up in rates;
  • Out-of-sequence work is a result of conflicts in technology and not mature technology and the IAM strike last fall as well other issues.
  • Delivery of 10/mo appears to be slipping a bit from late 2012 to 2013; discussion on this was a bit muddled and this slip is the take-away we have but we’re not certain we understood this as may have been intended. We’ll ask for clarification. Update, 10:40 am PDT: Boeing’s 787 Communications team clarified this for us; reaching 10/mo in 2012 is still the plan, without a slip to 2013.
  • Switching suppliers from weak ones to another generally takes longer and creates more disruption than fixing the root cause and helping them solve it; only in extreme cases of non-performance will switching suppliers make sense;
  • Certification for lightning strikes continues.

Our additional observations: we are confident from talking with our own sources that first flight will, indeed, occur in June as widely expected. We think it will be closer to June 30 than to June 15, but this is highly uncertain.

After such a long slog in this program, and bearing in mind the challenges and risks of the flight test program, we are cautiously optimistic Boeing has finally gotten its hands around this program. We look forward to this ground-breaking airplane getting into the air and into passenger service. The first blocks of the airplane will have some issues (mainly weight and range) but this has been true of previous programs (such as the 747-100, L-1011, MD-11 and A340-500/600, to name a few) and as the plane matures, it will be the success Boeing promises.

We look forward to the first flight.

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