How Boeing’s T-X and NMA are connected

Discussion
The connection between the T-X and the NMA

Boeing T-X. Source: Boeing.

Boeing has repeatedly stated the NMA is about developing a new airliner in a shorter time, produced at lower cost and supporting its operation in a more integrated and lower cost way. This has been stated before. Last, it was the 787 program which should bring all these advantages. The result was a program so far off the rails that only a very strong Boeing could right it.

Yet this time it could come true for the NMA. And the reason is the military Pilot training program T-X and its clean sheet training jet. How come? What’s the connection?

Black Diamond

The connection has a name, Black Diamond. It’s Boeing’s code word for a far-reaching program to develop programs at lower cost and to produce the resulting products cheaper. Its origin is in the Defense, Space & Security division with the program center at the St Louis Phantom Works unit.

But it’s not restricted to the Military side of Boeing. The results of Black Diamond are used at all divisions of Boeing.

Black Diamond has been described in the press as a secretive program to develop new technologies to produce faster and cheaper, like additive manufacturing and a digital life cycle. While these are all components of Black Diamond, they are not the solution.

I got a taste of what’s at the core of Black Diamond when I met the then manager of the Defense, Space & Security division, Chris Chadwick, at Farnborough Air Show in 2014. This was six months after the Boeing and SAAB tie up for T-X.

As a former SAAB and Gripen fighter program employee, I asked if Boeing’s reason for the tie-up was Gripen’s systems and software (which is a big part of today’s aircraft programs). Chadwick answered, “Boeing’s primary interest in cooperating with SAAB for the T-X is their know-how to develop aircraft programs more efficiently and to produce them at lower cost.” I was surprised by the answer and didn’t get it at first.

Then articles appeared on how SAAB developed the Gripen New Generation (NG) fighter demonstrator faster and at a lower cost than budgeted. The full-scale development of the Gripen D, a 60% new version of the Gripen I worked on, was following the same pattern.

The key to the improvements was in changed work methods, more than in any technological advances. SAAB had tried out and perfected more efficient work methods and proofed them in several projects.

Boeing has also done trials with changed work methods, similar to SAAB’s, but lacked the program proof they worked. The T-X cooperation with SAAB became the proof project.

The T-X program successfully developed two pre-series aircraft on time and flew them before the U.S. Air Force. The program also convinced the Air Force evaluation team about the effectiveness of Black Diamond. Boeing’s winning bid came in at less than half the cost of the U.S. Air Force estimates assuming legacy development and manufacturing methods.

Benefits for NMA

Changing how to do things in large organizations is difficult. The organization knows what works and the last change for the BCA was a disaster (the 787). The result: Better to stay with what we know, it is proven. It doesn’t matter if the top guys speak about change, we are the guys who have to do it and we stick to what we learned works.

To convince large groups of change, a convincing example where the changes worked is needed. It needs to be a sizable project and close to the groups which shall accept the change.

Boeing has declared the successful T-X development as a raw model for all future Boeing development projects. The $9.2bn offered price for producing 351 T-X trainers and their ground training simulators, $10 billion below what the Air Force estimated it would cost, shows Boeing and SAAB are convinced about the Black Diamond advantages.

In summary, the T-X project is Boeing’s pilot for how to develop and produce future aircraft. The first BCA project using Black Diamond to the full is NMA. Boeing aims for a six years development period followed by a production phase at record low costs.

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