Next, problems arose with the composite structures. In March 2008, Boeing said that parts of the center wing box, built by Fuji Heavy Industries, had unexpectedly buckled during stress testing. This caused a six-month setback as Boeing added aluminum reinforcements to the boxes and changed the designs of future ones. Then, days before a planned first flight in June 2009, the company discovered that composite “stringers” joining the main wing structure to the center wing box–the most severely stressed connections on any plane–had delaminated in testing. Boeing had to remake the wing-body connections, adding, among other things, 34 new titanium fittings.
The full story behind these issues has not been revealed, and Boeing provided no interviews for this story. “It’s hard to tell where a lack of oversight by Boeing ends and a bad contractor performance begins,” says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of the Teal Group, a think tank and consultant to the civil and military aviation industries. “Getting other people to build things for them worked well for Boeing, decade after decade. So with the 787, it was just faith. It might have worked with traditional designs, but with composites and new techniques, it was guaranteed to be a disaster.”
The problems and delays contributed to the $3.5 billion in charges the company took last year. And Boeing found it necessary to buy the South Carolina plant of Vought, which had fallen behind on its fuselage work, and to build a second fuselage assembly line. The company recognized belatedly that its outsourcing had gone too far, says Morris Cohen, a professor of manufacturing and logistics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “We see more and more outsourcing of manufacturing, globally, in high-tech industries,” Cohen says. “We are discovering that as you move down that path, the challenges are not trivial. I don’t think companies have paid enough attention to how to manage supply chains from a strategic perspective.”
The clearest consequence, besides the costly delays, is that the first few 787s will probably be heavier than the targeted 108 tons. Nevertheless, the first 787s are scheduled to be delivered this year. And as long as the plane ultimately performs as advertised, the delays may not harm Boeing’s long-term reputation. “Boeing can very easily redeem itself by producing a product that the market wants,” says Aboulafia. Airlines and passengers, he adds, “remember the product, not how it was executed.”
Meanwhile, the Airbus A380 program has faced its own manufacturing glitches. More significant, the plane has found relatively few buyers; with a capacity between 525 and 853 passengers, it is simply too big to make sense for many airlines. Whereas Boeing has logged more than 800 orders for the 787, only about 200 have come in for the A380, earning the aircraft–whose maker is headquartered in Toulouse, France–the nickname “Toulouse Goose,” after Howard Hughes’s infamous “Spruce Goose,” the wood-framed World War II-era behemoth that never made it beyond a single prototype.
Even if the 787 passes through all the turbulence, Boeing can’t rest for long. Airbus now has a 787 competitor waiting in the wings: the midsize A350, also 50 percent composite. About 500 orders have come in, and Airbus says it’s on track to start delivering the aircraft in 2013. So in a sense, the 787 program seems likely to pay off one way or another. If it provided a hard lesson about the limits of outsourcing and the risks of innovating with composite materials, the bold design also gave Boeing a much-needed head start on the next phase of innovation in commercial aviation.
David Talbot is Technology Review’s chief correspondent.