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Materials science? A Boeing 787 Dreamliner undergoes final assembly in Everett, WA. The jet’s fuselage and wings are made entirely of composite materials, a first in commercial aviation.

Nearly seven years ago, when I visited Boeing’s cavernous manufacturing site in Everett, WA, the sight of machinists playing ping-pong in a vast but idle shop seemed to symbolize the stagnant state of the aviation industry. Air travel had not recovered from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And Boeing was facing stiff competition: Airbus, its European rival, had made innovative advances in commercial jets, such as rear tail pieces made from lightweight composites. Worse, Airbus was gearing up to build the A380 superjumbo jet–a higher-­capacity, more efficient competitor to ­Boeing’s iconic 747.

Boeing needed to do something bold. So it bet its business on a medium-sized advanced aircraft called the 7E7–today known as the 787 Dreamliner–that would be 20 percent more fuel-efficient than other jets of comparable size and cost less to maintain. Such a jet would make direct flights between far-flung smaller cities (say, Boston and Bangalore) cost-effective. “It’s the future. It really is,” Mark Jenks, a Boeing vice president who was then director of technology integration for the 7E7 program, said to me in 2003. “If we get it wrong, it’s the end. And everyone here knows that.”

Boeing’s plane would greatly increase the use of advanced composites–layers of carbon fibers embedded in epoxy resin to form durable, lightweight materials. The 787 structure would be 50 percent composite, compared with just 12 percent in Boeing’s previous jet, the 777, and 23 percent in the Airbus A380. For the first time in commercial aviation, the entire tube of the fuselage would be a single piece of composite, replacing the customary aluminum alloy skin affixed to aluminum alloy ribs. In another first, the wings and the center wing box–a chunk of fuselage to which the wing structures attach–would also be made of composites.

Innovation extended to the design and manufacturing process. Airbus and Boeing had long subcontracted some manufacturing, and Airbus had even invited some subcontractors to invest and share the risk in the A380. But in an effort to reduce its own investment and cut costs, “Boeing took it a lot further,” says Hans Weber, owner of San Diego-based TECOP International, a technical consultant to the aviation industry and government agencies including the Federal Aviation Administration. Airbus had never outsourced design or the manufacture of the main airframe. With the 787, Boeing did both.

On paper, customers were impressed; by the end of 2007, the 787 was the hottest-selling jet in history. But when the first one took wing for its first test flight in December, it was the most delayed commercial jet in the firm’s history–28 months behind schedule. The 787 had become bogged down in a saga of parts shortages, subcontractor failures, and weaknesses in crucial composite structures, requiring retrofits and redesigns.

Where’s the Duct Tape?

So what went wrong? For starters, the company lost track of certain details–namely, fasteners. Building a single Boeing 777 requires 2.7 million titanium, aluminum, and stainless-­steel bolts, rivets, and other fasteners peculiar to airframe manufacture. And the 787 would need more fasteners made of the titanium alloys that are least susceptible to corrosion when in contact with carbon composites.

As the 787 project geared up, the industry was already in the midst of a fastener shortage. But Boeing’s extensive outsourcing strategy compounded this problem. The back of the fuselage was made by Vought Aircraft Industries in South Carolina; a middle chunk by Alenia Aeronautica in Italy; the nose by Spirit AeroSystems in Kansas. In Japan, Mitsubishi, Fuji, and Kawasaki Heavy Industries built the wing structures–and Kawasaki built yet another piece of fuselage.

Suppliers were ordering fasteners in different ways and on different schedules; as a result, the fastener manufacturers found it difficult to make coherent production plans, according to a recent case study by the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business that drew on Boeing reports and interviews with company employees. This bogged down manufacturing. “Boeing was caught off guard,” says Ravi Anupindi, a professor of operations management at Ross. “By the time they knew about it, it was at a crisis stage.” To solve the problem, the company wound up taking over the ordering of all fasteners.

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Credit: Ed Turner/Boeing

Tagged: Computing

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