The dream un-deferred: Finally, Boeing delivers first of its Dreamliner superplanes

By Richard Poplak 27 September 2011

On Sunday, beleaguered airplane manufacturer Boeing delivered the first of what will be hundreds of its new 787 Dreamliners to a commercial airline company. The programme, delayed four years and facing billions in cost overruns, may struggle to prove successful. It is a lesson in the perils of post-industrial manufacturing. By RICHARD POPLAK.

When the first Nippon Airways pilot fires up the brand new 787 Dreamliner, he or she will be operating the most technologically impressive aircraft ever made. As the twin Rolls Royce Trent 1000s whine into life, the temperature inside the core of the engine will become roughly half as hot as the sun, each hollow titanium blade bearing a force equivalent to heaving a freight train. The Trent 1000 is rigged to send constant message updates to ground control, informing mechanics of the exact workings of the engine, and letting them know ahead of time if any parts are needed at servicing. Capable of propelling the plane to 1,448kmh, the entire contraption should, by rights, either melt or explode. That it doesn’t is a reigning marvel of aerospace engineering.

But it has not been easy. In fact, it’s been nothing short of a disaster, one that has seen Seattle-based Boeing pay out tens of billions of dollars in penalties to commercial airline companies that were expecting delivery in 2008. Unlike a shipment of new 737s, the Dreamliner promises to transform the way airlines run their scheduling. The aircraft holds between 220 and 290 passengers, and shaves off at least 20% of the fuel costs of the next most efficient aircraft. It can manage both long- and short-haul flights, and thus becomes something of a go-to for harried carriers. What’s more, the cabin has been created with actual passengers in mind, and is branded with that in mind.

So far, so good. But in creating the manufacturing model for the 787, Boeing’s bean counters looked towards the automotive industry as a paradigm. That the automotive industry is a basket case didn’t seem to occur to anyone in Seattle, so they went about piece-meal building of the plane to a variety of proven, and in many cases unproven, production partners. (Canada’s Bombardier and Brazil’s Embraer have used this model to mixed results.)

Rolls Royce showed up with the Trent 1000, the finest and most efficient engine in production. (Most aircraft manufacturers have traditionally sharecropped when it comes to engine development.) But in employing contractors for other sections of the plane—much of which was designed around revolutionary carbon fibre composite materials to shave off weight—Boeing hit snag after snag.  The wings, which sweep up in a gorgeous aerodynamic arc, are built in Japan. The tail is made in Italy, while the fuselage is built in chunks in Kansas and Charleston, South Carolina.

The Charleston caper was such a disaster that Boeing had to buy the partner outright, expand the plant, which meant essentially developing an entire arm of the company six hours flight from the Everett plants that have been running so smoothly for decades. The global supply chain, which Boeing imagined would reduce costs, has instead increased them dramatically. In 2004, when Boeing started building the 787, the price tag was projected at $5 billion. Fifteen billion dollars later, and the company is awash in red ink. It will cost Boeing a further $16 billion before it sees a penny of profit, and that’s if orders hit roughly 1,200. (They currently stand at 821, with 140 having been cancelled due to tardiness.)

On Sunday, Nippon took possession the eighth production 787 and the first to fly commercially. It is not a perfect machine. For one thing, because the fuselage needed to be reinforced due to screw-ups in Charleston, it is overweight and thus less fuel-efficient. There is a persistent clunking coming from the nose, which needed a shim to quiet it down, and a fan that supplies air to the cabin has been wonky. A software glitch sends worrying emergency messages, all of which need to be followed up at great inconvenience to the crew. In short, No. 8 sounds like a bit of a lemon. But Boeing insists these problems are nothing compared to what they experienced with the 747, many of which are still flying. Indeed, Boeing is supposed to be delivering its 787-8 super jet—a retrofitted Jumbo for the enviro-age—but it is also delayed.

Which is all well and fine, but if the 787 hopes to be a successful project, it will need to deliver on time to airline companies desperately looking for ways to decrease their fuel and maintenance costs. The Dreamliner is designed to be a salve on both counts. What’s more, the cabin is built for –wait for it—passengers! Shrinks and design gurus have contributed to the cabin’s development, which includes larger self-dimming windows without shades, bigger overhead baggage storage, pleasing LED lights, and an air filtration system fit for human consumption. The interior design harks back to an era of travel evoked in the recent hit TV show “Pan Am”—a space-aged, futurist world recalling the Googly design of the TWA building at Los Angeles’s LAX airport. In other words, even at full capacity, this is a plane frequent flyers will consider a blessing.

For that reason alone, the Daily Maverick hopes the Dreamliner makes it into the air sooner rather than later. Cash-starved airlines have demanded just such a plane, which places a premium on efficiency. In a perfect world, reduced fuel costs could conceivably lead to cheaper tickets. (Yup—that seems hilariously implausible, but you never know.) Innovation costs money, and the Dreamliner is new from the apron on up. But in developing a global supply chain, Boeing broke the one golden rule of business: If you want something done well, do it yourself. DM

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