Nov. 1, 2021, © Leeham News: Boeing executives have been hinting for years about the production transformation the company sees as critical to the Next Boeing Airplane (NBA), no matter what form it takes.
Boeing’s effort, begun under former CEO Jim McNerney, was code-named Black Diamond. LNA has referred to it many times. The New Midmarket Aircraft was as much about production as it was about the aircraft.
In last week’s 3Q2021 earnings call, current CEO David Calhoun once again mentioned the transformation to a new design and production system.
“In addition, for the 737 MAX 7, the MAX 10, and the 777X, we are investing in our future, laying the foundation for our next commercial airplane development program,” he said. “This quarter, we stood up an integrated product team to bring together a digital environment where the next commercial new airplane and production system can be designed together. While we have not launched a new airplane, this is an important step in our digitization journey and our development journey to evaluate how we holistically design, build, test, certify and support the airplane and production system. It will build on the invaluable experience of our recent Defense programs.”
The “production system of the future” is shown in a Boeing chart:
Boeing Commercial Airplanes has been dabbling in various elements of Black Diamond for years. The NMA was to be the convergence of all the defense and BCA uses into the first commercial airliner. The Red Hawk was Boeing’s first military airplane to benefit from the convergence of the new technologies.
The 787 assembly plant in Charleston (SC) as far back as 2017 became the site for some MQ-25 work. A section of the 787 FAL was cordoned off with black curtains for the classified work. Although I’m speculating, it’s probably no coincidence that BCA’s Charleston plant was selected for some MQ-25 work.
Boeing’s supply chain is also engaged in the new production work. One of Boeing’s major suppliers in Washington State years ago began “producing” airplanes under the digital twin method reference in the graphic.
Aside from the evolutionary changes that are inevitable in the digital and technological age we’re in, cutting costs is a big goal of the new system. Calhoun has been clear that the NBA won’t have a step change in engine technology. (I’m not so sure—GE Aviation’s Open Fan engine, under development in various forms since the days of the Boeing 727 and McDonnell Douglas MD-80—may finally be nearing prime time.)
But taking Calhoun’s statement at face value, the benefit to airlines in an NBA would be reducing the capital cost. Calhoun’s theory is that cost savings could be passed on to the customer. (A cynic, noting Boeing’s dedication to shareholder value, might instead conclude the cost savings would be passed on to the profit margin and not the customer.)
In theory, all this would give Boeing an advantage over Airbus. And, had the MAX crisis not occurred, it would have.
Boeing appeared nearing a decision in 2019 to launch the NMA when the MAX was grounded in March 2019. Initially, most everyone thought the grounding would last only a few months. Instead, it was 21 months before the Federal Aviation Administration recertified the airplane. The grounding killed the NMA. (Calhoun, who succeeded Dennis Muilenburg as CEO after the Board fired him, wasn’t an NMA fan anyway.)
The delay allowed Airbus to up its game in the advanced development arena. Airbus was behind Boeing in transforming to advanced design and manufacturing. Today’s depending on who you talk to, it’s caught up or slightly ahead.
Setting aside that the derivative 777XF appears to be the next Boeing airplane, what Calhoun and Boeing are talking about is the next clean-sheet design. Boeing hopes to compress the launch-to-entry into service to four or five years. The 787’s original plan was 4 ½ years (December 2003 to May 2008). EIS didn’t occur until October 2011, but there were extraordinary issues as we all know. Recent airplane development typically took about seven years launch-to-EIS.
Given Boeing’s recent track record in developing new aircraft, it faces huge challenges in converging all the advanced technology into one commercial aircraft and successfully bringing it to market. A major shift back to the basics, returning to its engineering roots, is a must.
Let’s see if Calhoun will pull this off.