HOTR: Boeing’s “historic” production advance

By the Leeham News Team

May 18, 2021, © Leeham News: Boeing’s Defense unit last week said it joined the front fuselage of the first Boeing-SAAB T-7A Red Hawk trainer with the aft section “perfectly,” in less than 30 minutes.

It was, Boeing said, an “historical moment.”

It was “a testament to the digital heritage of the U.S. Air Force’s first ‘eSeries’ aircraft and witness to the benefits of model-based engineering and 3D design,” Boeing said. “The digital splice was completed in 95% less time than traditional splices and with substantial quality improvements.”

Why is this a big deal for Boeing Commercial Airplanes?

Because the T-7A, along with the MQ-25 unmanned aerial refueler for the Navy, are Boeing’s pilot programs, if you will, for production of the next Boeing commercial airliner.

This is in part what former Boeing Co. CEOs Jim McNerney and Dennis Muilenburg and current CEO David Calhoun alluded to each time they talked about advanced production.

Beyond the 787

This snap-together approach was supposed to be implemented with the Boeing 787. However, Murphy’s Law prevailed: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

Now, nearly 20 years later, Boeing may be approaching the day when production of its airliners is dramatically streamlined and costs are dramatically reduced.

“This moment marks a key stage in the evolution of the T-7A Red Hawk,” said Boeing. “Employing digitally advanced manufacturing and build techniques developed by Boeing over the past two decades, we are bringing this trainer to future pilots sooner than ever before possible and with greater quality.”

The fuselage came from SAAB in Sweden to St. Louis, where Boeing’s Defense unit is headquartered and military airplanes are produced.

“The aircraft is the first engineering and manufacturing development test asset to be spliced,” Boeing said.

“What we’re seeing in this new evolution of digitally designed, engineered and manufactured aircraft is a 50% improvement in overall production quality and as much as a 98% reduction in drilling defects,” said Andrew Stark, Boeing T-7A Red Hawk production director. “It’s a new way of producing airplanes with improved quality throughout the whole journey.”

Airbus isn’t standing still. As described in this LNA post, Boeing’s rival embarked on its own advanced manufacturing processes.

55 Comments on “HOTR: Boeing’s “historic” production advance

  1. The fuselage cross-section of a T-7A is a LOT smaller than that of a passenger airliner. Let’s see how efficiently this process translates to a widebody.

    • Bryce:

      You have to cram into a very tiny area all the links for an extremely complex machine,

      No one has done this before without the above mention 787 that the mechanics had to come up with methods to shim that had not been used.

      If you follow Aviation at all, this was an incredible accomplish if both sections had been made in St. Luis.

      they were not, the rear came from SAAB Sweden (mfg will be moved to the US)

      When we criticize someone and only go negative, you miss the object of giving credit if its due. In this case both Boeing and SAAB have done incredibly.

      Equally all you do for your own specifications is make clear its a one way street and get ignored as unable to see the full picture.

      Don’t just cry wolf, come up with solutions. Otherwise its just complaining for complaining sake. Boeing can do that.

      • If you want to get all excited about this development, then off you go. Other people are perfectly capable of exercising their own judgment, and forming their own opinion. The author of the article put the word “historic” between quotation marks…you evidently missed that subtlety.

        • Bryce:

          I never needed nor care about quote or peoples self interpretation of them, like the todays youth with Emoji, its meaningless. Does the work match the rhetoric and in this case it did and does.

          Clearly a reading comprehension course would be in your future.

          It is extremely interesting accomplishment . It was not a prototype (those are flying by the way). Can they get into quantity produ9ion and sustain the accomplishment? That is the valid question.

          You don’t know and I don’t know. We would have reason to question it if they had failed and they did not.

          So, you keep an eye and ear on it and see what comes out of it.

          This assembled T-7A was a standard production item such as a first A350/787 (all new aircrat).

          Yes Boeing has a lot to overcome and a lot to prove, they could fail, certainly suspect based on their recent track record.

          To this point the T-7A program is doing exactly what they said it could and would.

          Next steps are the full serial produion. But, and its huge, they have passed design and are into industrial very very successfully.

          The A350 fist 17 were just like the 787 Terrible teens, vastly different as they found it was all hand fit and adjust and it was not just fastener it up and send it off. Major changes.

          The first group of T-7A will be on the same group of is it fairly or seamless or not? If they can do this in 30 minutes repeatedly they are off to the races.

          It would be well worth your while reading some books on Aviation, design process and industrialization change over. Joe Sutter on the 747 would be a good start.

          • “The A350 fist 17 were just like the 787 Terrible teens, vastly different as they found it was all hand fit and adjust and it was not just fastener it up and send it off. Major changes.”

            I remember early some software changes were made to maintenance monitoring systems, lavatory doors and customer seats. Some hydraulic components and some RR SB’s. But nothing close to the Dreamliner terrible teen adventures as I can remember..

  2. One thing is to design in 3D with perfect fit, another is making them to these tolerances at high speed and repeatably. Can Boeing do it for the composite 797 it will be a game changer, Airbus is then forced to develop a similar made composite aircraft that also can be snap’t together. This also opens the possibility to quickly assemble aircrafts where the main customers are (like India, China, Middle East). In theory Airbus could put the robots on a ship and produce the parts while on its way to China and cure the last bit just before customs.

    • Airbus already seems to have no problem putting A350s together, from parts made all over the place. There’s all sorts of ways of being efficient; AFAIK, A350 fuselages are made from moderately-sized CF components. More joints, but a whole lot cheaper tooling than is required for the 787 barrels. Bigger choice of suppliers too.

      Whilst I can see that quicker / easier joining of fuselage barrels together is a good thing, I’m slightly surprised at the emphasis being put on it. With ships, the thing that takes time isn’t putting the hull together, it’s the fitting out. I’d have thought that the fitting out on an airliner is similarly labour intensive.

      • The A350 builds fuselage panels in composite fibre for the main structure – except for nose and tail section. The crown , belly and side panels are then assembled to form a barrel with the ring frames inside. In this method Airbus has less ‘main barrels’ than the 787. The rear section supporting tail structure is made as complete barrel on a mandrel because its not a circular shape.

        • Bjorn wrote that the two systems are equal for different reasons

          Good enough for me.

          More than one way to skin a cat

          • Not really. If theres a malfunction in Boeings method, the whole barrel is discarded. The other factor, the highest strength section often the keel, is continued all around the barrel, while for Airbus, each panel can be varied, so that the crown could be designed for lower strength.
            I think its accepted now that ‘panels’ is the later evolution and the next airliner will be panels

  3. “Historic moment”, “advanced production”…. really? Boeing has been doing digital design for 30 years, the 777 was the first airplane designed using CATIA 3D. Just more spin from the corporate MBA’s in Chicago.
    This from the same company that bagged FAUB advanced manufacturing because they had incompetent people running the program and to this day still hasn’t got the Starliner program on track because of safety failures.
    For those unfamiliar with FAUB, you can check it out here:

    For the record, Airbus was/is successful with their FAUB advanced manufacturing program on several models.

    • You miss the point.

      The entire process has to be digital.

      And its not just design, the INDUSTRIALIZE process has to be digital.

      Too many people do not realize that design is one part and industrial is a separate process that takes design and makes it in numbers (as low as aircraft are, they have to be industrialized to make it pay)

      Boeing tried to make this work on the 777 fuselage not the wing.

      The fact that they build the T-7A section in two entirely separate location by two entirely separate organizations (let alone two who never worked together) and it assembled in 30 minutes is both stunning and a game changer.

      Its a fair question can they do the same in BCA, but its definitely not been seen before and like 3D printing, has earth shaking ramification.

      • @Transworld
        Point taken. But your talking to a guy who worked for Boeing for many years and I do have production experience in the commercial side. So SAAB and Boeing engineering coordinate together…. wow that’s new huh?
        Maybe we should look at the problems with the 787 section 48 that’s produced in Italy by Alenia….. your aware of this correct and the massive quality issues to this day? And the reason Boeing ultimately purchased the Charleston site (hinting had nothing to do with getting property… that was the fall out. My point is stressing what Bryce is eluded too, comparing this small jet to a commercial widebody is not worthy. But I guess Boeing need all the good press it can get.
        Oh and did you note that RYR mad max is again delayed until late summer?

        • Airdoc:

          Size in this case does not matter, it has to fit.

          I have never heard of a fighter (not an airliner) going together like this on the first shot, its alwyas been the 787 thing where the assembly worked had to figure it out and took time.

          I am as critial of Boeing as you will find, but I was a technician/engineer and my job was not to put emotion into it, it was to determine the good from the bad (or bad from any good) .

          Boeing has some horrible screw up and self inflicted wounds.

          The all digital design is a new approach that may be part of the beginning of getting it back on track.

          It would be impressive if SAAB did it, or Boeing did it but for two firms who do not work together to collaborate and do it to an extremely high degree of accuracy and fit, that is huge.

          • Size certainly does matter.
            A given absolute error translates to a smaller relative error when the diameter increases. Relative error in turn dictates machining overhead.
            Moreover, different types of error start to occur at larger diameters. At smaller diameters (where stiffness is relatively high), lower-order “linear” errors in 6 degrees of freedom will be the norm. However, at larger diameters (where stiffness is relatively low), higher-order “non-linear” errors will become more significant, such as shear/skew, torsional deformation, saddle deformation, etc.

            This effect is seen every day when laying railroads. A short section of rail (e.g. a few feet) has the appearance of being infinitely stiff. However, a larger length of the same rail (e.g. a few tens of yards) is much more easily deformed/buckled.

          • The accomplishment of two geographically separated teams is worthy of commendation thus is newsworthy.

            Key is smart rational people dedicated to the job, who can communicate with each other.

            As for Bryce’s reply to you that does not have a Reply option, he does not understand structures IMO. Note that the problem with some 787 fuselages is not the need for shims but forcing parts together. (Then held together with fasteners, perhaps sometimes forcing them apart. Either way adds built-in stress which will have an effect, as it would with metal structure. The fix is measuring for proper shim thickness. Underlying cause is perhaps ignorance, akin to the failure to grasp necessity of electrical conductivity in avionics shelving.)

            The effect of forcing parts together or apart depends on thickness and stiffness of the structure, thus is not intrinsically determined by size.

            (Aerodynamic smoothness is another factor, I expect.)

      • “Other people are perfectly capable of exercising their own judgment, and forming their own opinion.”

        Which will come from their epistemology – reality thus fact-based or emotional.

    • There have been other comments that say the Airbus riveting process is only 70% automated with the balance less accessible ones being done manually. Some of them may be blind rivets which can be applied by only one robot working on one side. Boeing was using two robots, one on each side, to put in a higher strength rivet.

      • ” Boeing was using two robots, one on each side, to put in a higher strength rivet.”

        Boeing, Airbus and others use similar variations of the Electroimpact riveter for driving rivets in aluminum structures. Uses two low-voltage high energy magnetic drivers. Method first used by Boeing on 747 in the late 60’s

    • ” Boeing has been doing digital design for 30 years, the 777 was the first airplane designed using CATIA 3D”
      well the 767 had about 30 percent ‘ digital’ penetration in 1980-83
      The Boeing part of mostly composite B2 wing, body sections had over 90 percent ‘ digital’ penetration, including CATIA and NCAD,NCAL ( derived from early Lockheed digital efforts ) and also used digital processed tooling theodolites and tape layup techniques, plus digital processed composite cutters and ‘ routers, total digital processed copper plating systems for certain composite structures such as ‘ scan digital drawing- determine plating area, run time and amperage figures to control thickness, etc.
      Wuz there- on 767,B2 and 777
      So be careful of ‘ first’ comments.

      • And computers were started back in WWII

        Each step has built on previous work, they did not go from slide rules to the T-7A in one leap.

        They did achieve a phenomenally impressive fit in the first shot.

        Like the Chinese soft landing a Rover on Mars on the fist shot, extremely impressive.

        They have to get it in serial production still, but I have never read of a smooth assemble like that for any aircraft.

        And keep in mind, this is not just a trainer, its a future light attack jet with all the options for sensing and weapons baked in.

      • Uh, some people are exaggerating Boeing’s problems with FARB robotic fastening.

        (Seemed to me part of the problem was the supplier of the technology. In any case it has been covered a lot in LeehamNews.)

  4. I thank Leeham for mentioning the MQ-25. This is a parallel effort that Boeing took away from Northrup Grumman who had the fist Drone flying off a Carrier.

    In both cases they put it on the line and it was not only a low bids, it was bids that were ridiculous low per Lockheed and NG .

    Defense department may rude the day they did not give the B-21 to Boeing (never thought I would even consider saying that)

    The T-7A was half the price of the other bids.

    I like someone putting their money where their mouth was.

    The KC-46 was a different beast for those who will pile in on that. It was a classic we know what it takes to get it and they did, but it was small percentages not the huge magnitude of the T-7A and MQ-25.

    Its known as leaving money on the table in the contracting business. Sometimes a screw up, sometime deliberate per getting a return on change orders. Boeing did the classic combo (they screwed up more than they thought they would on this one).

    • B-21 went to Northrop-Grumman precisiley because of their previous knowledge of the B-2.[Which was a new carbon fibre construction from the ground up] Their major partner in building is Spirit…yes that Spirit.
      Boeing was partnered with Lockheed on their B-21 project.

      • Boeing went down and Saved NG on the B-2.

        Military evaluation has a risk factor, the risk for a new process is high, ergo, the USAF did not want to risk anything on the vaunted B-21, so they went with the safe option.

        In this day and age that is a fatal move.

        Boeing protested it on cost basis. So we pay huge when we do not have to.

        Want to see who get the NGD contract?

        • Boeing saved Northrop on B-2 ? Dont be silly Boeing , not including North American or McDonnell-Douglas at that time, was a subcontractor alongside Vought to spread the work around, as these sorts of things have to do to survive. Boeing did the outer wings ( always a speciality of theirs) and aft centre fuselage. This was an era when large scale carbon fibre construction had to be developed from scratch – probably changed so much since not really reusable for airliners. A later NASA contract for a 777 scale fuselage section was how Boeing worked on that problem.

          • The reports weer NG had issue and Boeing sent significant labor force down to get it workign right.

            Boeing had the right expertise at the right time and you can bet NG paid for it.

      • “B-21 went to Northrop-Grumman precisiley because of their previous knowledge of the B-2”

        You do know that most of the body/bombbay and major parts of the
        wing ( tomahawk section- front and rear spars ) on B2 were designed – built and partly assembled agt Boeing ? Plus some of the ‘ feathers ‘

        • Yes , I said so, that Boeing did this a sub contractor. Thats how US military projects work. The other prime on the competition was Lockheed-North American with ‘Senior Peg’ design based on concepts from the F-117 Night Hawk.

  5. What is revolutionary here is not so much that an aircraft can be build quickly, after all the 737 gets put together in 9 days, but rather that you can go from design to production to ramp-up quickly and efficiently. Typically it takes a few years to get to an efficient build process and high rates (just look at the A220). But to avoid Osbourning the 737 Boeing needs to get to high rate fast.

    • While that is part of it you are discounting that the fit was so close they could mate it up with zero issue.

      That is what takes the time to work out, how to align, fit, shim etc.

      They did not just use better micrometers, they used an entire new design process to do it.

      Yes its been partially done but no where to this degree where the entire process is digital.

    • Yes, that is standard. Its part of the bid process (or built in).

      Accounting take that in as part of it and it does not matter who gets the bid, all contractors do it if its available.

  6. More trouble ahead for BA

    Congress demands records to investigate quality lapses at Boeing via

    -> In 2019, a sweeping transformation of Boeing’s quality system deliberately eliminated thousands of quality checks during production and cut 100s of quality inspector jobs.

    Ernesto Gonzalez-Beltran, the architect of that shift, left the company in December

    Nice timing to exit, better jump ( w/ a golden parachute nonetheless) than wait for being pushed

    • Wow! I wonder what this is going to uncover.
      As previously commented: the recent electrical problem was only discovered by accident, so what else is there that hasn’t been discovered yet? I suspect that there are MANY rats under the carpet…

      • Actually I look on it as a positive for both the FAA and Boeing

        The sooner the FAA becomes fully independent the better for Boeing.

        Of course then if the investigation says, yes, this process has been corrected, it will be, oh they White Washed it.

        You can also quote the Chairman as their work never ends. Anyone that works for a living and is good at it knows you don’t learn from your success, you learn from your failures.

        Boeing is only in trouble if this would can occur again and only to the extend it gets corrected.

        Dickson needs to go and I believe the ODC needs to be implemented again.

        But that is the patch to improvement.

        • > Actually I look on it as a positive for both the FAA and Boeing Boeing is only in trouble if this would can occur again and only to the extend it gets corrected. <

          NG, MAX, 787, KC-46

          Mmm, no pattern to be discerned here..

    • That’s quite an interesting new piece from Dominic Gates- thanks for the link.

    • Well that edge is only as good as the current tech which is in process of being changed.

      Nothing like old wisdom. If something changes then the wisdom needs to as well to deal with reality.

      The day the Wright Brothers flew, old wisdom went out the window and the world of Aviation began and it was a period of insane progress.

      Then it slowed down because it had become mature.

      Stay tuned

      • > Well that edge is only as good as the current tech which is in process of being changed. <

        Not seeing anything from BCA so far on that score, other than
        mo' betta PR.. like the "historic" achievement reported above,
        from the DoD-funded side (of dubious significance IME).

        We'll see see see.

  7. Much like the 787 when Airbus made fun of the Plastic Aircraft, just to follow with their own plastic airplane (well mostly, the nose is standard aluminum because they could not handle a composite form setup in that complex pressurized shape that Spirit builds (or did) 14 a month)

    It should be noted that Airbus has their own advance design operation going, but that has not build an Aircraft, unlike the T-7A which has two prototypes flying and the test article now assembled.

    The test article will be used to confirm the modeling of the Industrial process vs the prototype builds.

    • I believe the stated reason for the A350 aluminum nose is better bird strike resistant.

      • ” Tuan
        May 18, 2021

        I believe the stated reason for the A350 aluminum nose is better bird strike resistant.”

        NOPE- critical nose areas re bird strike are usually backed up by titanium

        And composites are generally much better re penetration of birds and similar

        Pound on dime thick lor thicker aluminum with a sharp hammer,, and then do the same on equivalent CFRP used as structure other than radar transparent.

        Busting up a radome nose is rarely fatal or structurally significant.-but VERY messy

          • Duke said- quoting Airbus
            ” “According to Gordon McConnell, A350 Chief Engineer, a carbon fibre structure would need titanium reinforcements for birdstrike protection,..”

            Titanium structure is also used to back up aluminum structure re bird strike issues. Example 767 ‘skull’ cap in cockpit. On original 767, area above windshield ( ‘ skull ‘ ) was aluminum structure and skin. In that area inside were some significant hydraulic/electric controls.
            Boeing used a ‘ chicken’ cannon to test for ‘ bird strike’- and found ge that ‘ bird’ strike damage in that area would be very bad news.
            Along with changes from 3 person cockpit crew to two person crew, that area and certain surrounding structure was changed from aluminum to titanium.( approx 1981-82 )
            Dont know for sure re 777, 787- but I’ll bet the internal structure in that area is similar and most probably titanium

          • What is being missed is as a different structure type it has a different inspection and corrosion aspect.

            At least theorize all composite has none of those issue (granted you have to use Titian in metal areas or provide serious isolation to prevent corrosion. )

            Boeing did the complex geometry of the all composite nose and Airbus did not.

            What the true costs for that choice are is the question. You may save money building it at down the stream maint costs.

          • TransWorld
            May 20, 2021

            “What is being missed is as a different structure type it has a different inspection and corrosion aspect….”

            Correct but there is also a subtle but not well publicized corrosion issue with most grades/composition of Aircraft titanium. ( most commonly 6AL-4V )

            The majority of aircraft fasteners (other than rivets ) used with aluminum use cadmium plating for corrosion issues. But cad in contact with titanium is usually a no no-especially with moisture and a bit of heat over a period of time. So much so, that on the 2707 program, Boeing was in the process of stripping and replating mechanics tools- before the program was cancelled.

            And CFRP and aluminum in contact as in fastener holes, etc with a bit ofg moisture make a weak battery which tends to enhance corrosion

            But I digress- cheaper – easier to build- but at what later cost

  8. Boeing could get a huge, disruptive technology boost by salvaging one of those UFOs flying and diving around San Diego!

    But, seriously, Scott, Björn et al, what’s your take on “60 Minutes” and Obama talking about those phenomena? A secret Airbus NMA?

    • @Marat: Yep, a game-changing aircraft from Boeing.

  9. ‘Antibody-dependent enhancement and SARS-CoV-2 vaccines and therapies’:

    “Antibody-based drugs and vaccines against severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) are being expedited through preclinical and clinical development. Data from the study of SARS-CoV and other respiratory viruses suggest that anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies could exacerbate COVID-19 through antibody-dependent enhancement (ADE)..”

    It’s be an interesting Autumn, I think.

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