A version of this article appears in the June 30 edition of Aviation Week & Space Technology.

While it is no secret that Airbus and Boeing face production backlogs of epic proportions, the scale of the challenge and dramatic changes to the industry such numbers represent can best be appreciated by comparing them to the order tallies at Farnborough shows of the past.

In terms of recent significance, Farnborough 2004 was perhaps the most pivotal. A decade ago the industry was on the verge of major change and this was reflected in the backlogs of the time. Airbus was assembling the first A380, while Boeing was on the verge of transforming the 7E7 into the 787. Dwindling backlogs for other longer-haul products also presaged changes. 

By the time of the 2004 air show, Airbus had taken just a single order for the A340-300, and the backlog was down to nine. Similarly the A340-500/-600 looked sluggish with just 62 orders, while Boeing’s 747-400 orderbook had declined to just 36.

But while those numbers indicated market trends, it is the astonishing difference in the sheer number of orders then versus today that really tells the story. At the end of June 2004, the combined Airbus and Boeing orderbook stood at 2,430; Airbus enjoyed the lion’s share with 1,393. So far in 2014, the two companies have a combined backlog of more than 10,600, with the 2004 grand total easily eclipsed by the 2,702 orderbook for the A320neo alone. The question now is how well equipped are Airbus and Boeing to deliver on their commitments, and will they be able to avoid the production pitfalls of the past? 

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Airbus stumbled with the A380, while Boeing had serious missteps with the ramp-up of the 737 in the late 1990s, and an even more severe setback with the 787 in the 2000s. Airbus, too, has faced consequential complications on the A320 line related to production increases and supply chain shortfalls. These have been sorted out, but the next trials are coming soon.

“Probably the biggest difference for all of us, if you can believe, is we are stable,” says Pat Shanahan, senior vice president and general manager of Airplane Programs for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “Three years ago, we said we’d do 16 rate increases over the next three years—and you might have said ‘really? Have you guys read the newspapers from 1998 where you tried that and it was a real struggle?’ Well, of the 16 we’ve done 15; we have one left on 767. If we were golfers it would be a two-foot putt—so the work environment is stable.”Stability has come at a price, and after hard lessons learned on the 787 and 747-8 in the late 2000s, Boeing is walking a fine line between abundant caution on one side as it develops the 777X, 787 and MAX, and the urgent need to ramp up production to historical new levels on the other. 

“With MAX we said let’s be super, super conservative,” Shanahan says. “On 777X we will find that sweet spot so we can be as fast as we can to that market. It will be very risk-balanced.”

With development of the CFM Leap-1B engine on track following its initial run in mid-June, the 737 MAX schedule is still pegged to first delivery in 2017. However with buffer room still in place, Boeing continues to study whether it can move even earlier. Manufacturing begins in Renton, Washington, on the first MAX in 2015, and the line will gradually be dovetailed into the existing 737 production system over the following four years. 

The 737 rate is now at 42 per month, which is a 33% increase over 2010, and is set to grow to 47 per month in 2017. In the hiatus before that next increase, Boeing is working on additional production improvements. “We haven’t had a period where we were in a rate increase for a good three or four years—so now this is a time where we can focus and improve everything, from the reliability and performance of the airplane to the production system. Now we are stable and can really raise the level of quality,” says Shanahan.

Through additional lean manufacturing initiatives, Boeing plans to further reduce 737 final assembly flow time from 10 days to nine this year. “We continue to create capacity by leaning out both manufacturing and materials-handling properties,” says Elizabeth -Schryer, 737 business operations director. 

The preparations for the MAX include setting up a dedicated, three-position line as the central part of the three existing lines in Renton. The line will be fed from a new systems-installation tool, incorporating nine positions for fuselages arriving from Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita.

Airbus is facing similar challenges with raising production rates of the A320 to 46 aircraft per month from 42,  and then managing the transition from the current model to the neo. A model change at such rate has never been done before, so the company has been looking for guidance from other industries as well. “The industrialization [of the A320neo] is following automotive principles,” says Klaus Roewe, senior vice president of the A320neo family.

“We are extremely good in terms of schedule; production ramp-up will be the next challenge,” Roewe says. Advanced product quality planning is one process initiated to ensure that new components are being produced at the right quality from the beginning. According to Roewe, the first neo components have become 70% better than Airbus’s own quality target as a result of the changes. The manufacturer is also applying the principles of pre-ramp-up for all major components. The supply chain is forced to undergo stress tests at much higher rates, much earlier than needed, to find out whether the system is ready. “You don’t ramp up when you need it, but a few months earlier,” Roewe says. “We make discrete tests at a much higher rate than we need. We will therefore have experienced ‘rate 46’ quite a while before it is actually in place.”

Boeing is also focusing on improvements to the 777, which is being produced at 8.3 per month—approximately 100 aircraft per year. The company is using automation to further evolve the production system, including an automated paint method for the wings and flex-track drillings for wings and fuselages. “In 1997 when we started on the lean journey, we were at 87 days for final assembly; to get to 47 in 2014 was a big milestone for us,” says 777 vice president and general manager Elizabeth Lund. “Since we started to use auto spray 100 percent, we have seen a 63 percent reduction in unit hours and an 80 percent reduction in rework quality hours,” she adds. The improvements also help pave the way for the 777X, which begins assembly in 2017.

For now the immediate focus remains on the 787 and the challenges Boeing faces as it aims to deliver 110 aircraft this year. “We’ve reached the point of high-rate-sustaining production,” says 787 vice president and deputy general manager Kim Pastega, who adds that the Charleston, South Carolina, production line is due to transition to three per month in late summer. Together with two lines in Everett, Washington, one of which is a temporary surge line, the company now makes 10 787s per month, but intends to gradually build up to 14 per month on just two lines by 2020. “Over the past year we’ve taken about 15 percent of unit cost off the 787-8, and since last year we’ve made a 10 percent flow reduction,” she says. Although Boeing was beginning work on only the ninth 787-9 around early June, the same process improvements have already delivered dividends. “Over the first six units we saw a 30 percent improvement in unit cost, and the seventh was the best one yet. The production system is really starting to perform,” she adds.

Despite a slower than expected start in 787 deliveries this year, Shanahan says the pace is accelerating. “We are starting to get into the same sort of frequency as 777, which is very encouraging. Our goal is for the process to be drama free. You jump in and take off. Our big push will be in July, August and September, then we have capacity in the back half of the year, when we will be able to smooth out deliveries,” he explains.

Although production remains unchanged, additional deliveries will be possible because it is a “step up out on the field where the inventory has been accumulating. If we need to surge and deliver 12 or 14 a month we can do that,” Shanahan says.

The Airbus A350 is still far from rates of that kind; certification is expected late in the summer. The A350 line currently operates at two aircraft per month and will be up to four by the end of the year, according to Didier Evrard, executive vice president of the A350 Program. 

Most of the issues in terms of A350 production have been linked to suppliers not being ready. While there is a supply chain improvement plan in place, Evrard expects suppliers will be significantly challenged, at least through next year. Currently, 90% of the A350 suppliers are under standard surveillance by Airbus and have had some improvement initiatives put in place. Joint improvement plans are underway for 7.5% of suppliers, and 2.5% who are deemed as a very high risk to production efforts are undergoing a heavy-duty development and transformation regime. Airbus plans to raise production of the A350 to five per month by the end of 2014, doubling to 10 within three years.

By 2018, assuming all stays on track, Airbus and Boeing will, between them, be producing around 150 single- and twin-aisle aircraft per month. This is not only an astonishing 1,800 airliners  per year but it also represents three times more than the combined tally in 2004. It is a graphic illustration of the growth trajectory the industry continues to enjoy.

Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST to see a video of commercial aviation developments to look for at the Farnborough air show, or go to  AviationWeek.com/Farnborough

Editor's Note: The A350 line identification has been corrected above.