Podcast: Why Can't Boeing Deliver the 787?

Listen in as Aviation Week editors unpack the complicated set of problems that have beset the revolutionary aircraft program. 

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Rush Transcript

Joe Anselmo:           Welcome to Aviation Week's Check 6 Podcast. I'm Joe Anselmo, editorial director. With the 737 MAX back in service in much of the world and deliveries ramping back up, Boeing has a new number one problem on its hands: the 787. Deliveries of the cutting-edge widebody jet are on hold and production has ratcheted back as the company grapples with quality issues and tussles with FAA regulators. And this is not a blip. Except for a brief re-start earlier this year, when 14 aircraft were delivered, deliveries have been on pause since October of 2020. But unlike the MAX, the 787 is hardly a new aircraft. It entered service a decade ago. So how can a production line that turned out hundreds of aircraft for so long suffer from such a dramatic meltdown? Here to help us understand that are two senior Aviation Week editors who closely follow Boeing, Guy Norris and Sean Broderick. Sean, let's start with you. You just filed a story on the 787 saga for next week's edition of Aviation Week magazine. Bring us up to speed.

Sean Broderick:      Sure. Joe. The piece really takes a look at what is an ongoing situation, that as you said, goes all the way back to October 2020 in terms of the delivery pace, but predates that in terms of what Boeing has learned and disclosed to the FAA about some of the issues it's finding in its production process. And for the most part, these are compliance issues, these are nonconformances, where Boeing is not able to produce aircraft that meet its design standards. And if you don't do that with a production certificate, under an FAA production certificate, then you're not producing airworthy aircraft technically. We've covered the issues extensively in the magazine, really over the last year and change, us, and others have covered them as well. Each of them individually, whether we're talking about shims that fill tiny but common gaps when structures are mated or the smoothness of skin on the underside of the fuselage where fuselage barrels join, each of them individually is not necessarily a major challenge.

                                    The problem that Boeing is having is quantifying what the issues are and coming up with a way to assess, either on an airframe by airframe basis or in Boeing's preference on a broader statistical modeling basis, what the issues are in the produced aircraft and which ones need to be fixed before they're delivered. The challenges with the 787 program, of course, didn't start on the production side. It didn't start in 2019. I mean, they go all the way back to before deliveries. The shimming, for example, I mean, Boeing's had shimming issues on every single every single 787 that it has built, and it's been reported. Shimming, as I think most of the audience knows, is a very common thing. I mean, Guy knows better than me, but there are hundreds, if not thousands, of shims on every airplane that rolls off the line.

                                    The challenge in the case of the shimming that Boeing is having is getting its automated process to correctly predict what size these tiny, and they are tiny little gaps, width of a human hair or smaller, what size these gaps are and getting its automatic system to produce the right size shim so that it goes in and the integrity of the load path on the important parts of the airplane is maintained. What Boeing found that this latest meltdown, to use your word, that dates back to October,2020, Boeing found on a couple of airplanes last year, some rather large gaps between pieces of aft fuselage. We're talking inch, inch and a half, way out of tolerance. And that started a process where they had to look at every airplane that they had waiting to go out. And the more they looked, the more out of tolerance issues they found.

                                    The problem that they now have, and have had for over a year, with the exception of that brief restart in deliveries, is trying to come up with a reliable and sustainable process for identifying what the issues are on the airplanes, and then reworking them and getting them out the door. But getting that process approved has been the big holdup.  Some of these issues that they've seen are certainly significant compared to ones that predate 2019. Another big difference that we're dealing with now is the FAA is asking for a lot more homework, to put it simply. When Boeing comes up with a way that it analyzes its production records and samples parts of airplanes that are out there to try to determine what some of the production issues are, the FAA wants assurances that what Boeing is telling them is accurate.

                                    Boeing and the FAA haven't agreed on that, at least for some of these issues. And I think the biggest news over the last, say couple of months is that Boeing has now gone with one of these issues, shimming in the aft body area, they are now going into every piece of sub-assembly. They are looking to see if the shimming is within design tolerances or not. And if it's not, they're doing rework. That on every piece. And they're doing it in position in South Carolina, before those sub-assemblies go to the final assembly line. So that change, that addition of manual effort to validate each and every piece of subassembly heading to the final assembly line is what has caused the production rate to fall now below two per month. That two per month was already reduced from five per month, which is where the 787 was set heading into 2021 as part of the consolidation in South Carolina, and then of course the reduction to meet newly revised pandemic outlook.

                                    So that's a lot to unpack there. I think the main takeaway is though that, while the set of problems, it may be a new list, these aren't necessarily new issues. And what I think Boeing and the industry is trying to understand is how much of this relates to the challenge of building a largely composite airframe, and how much of it relates to Boeing specific processes, including having multiple suppliers taking on large chunks of risk by making big parts of the airplane, and then maybe some other Boeing procedures that were emphasizing deliveries over making sure that airplanes pass the white glove tests in the go-go days leading into the pandemic.

Joe Anselmo:           So Sean, I want to go to a Guy, but sum up for our readers who are more layman on the 787, what you talked about. What are the issues holding up? It's the shims, there's doors. There's several issues, right?

Sean Broderick:      I think shimming is the big one, and shimming is certainly the most prevalent one. And that's simply filling gaps that are very common. They were common in metal airplanes before. They're certainly common in composites now. When you put two big pieces of airplane structure together, both the fit of those two pieces, and then what happens when you fasten them together, you're going to get microscopic gaps, and you always have. In the olden days, you measured the gaps with a tool, you figured out what the gap was, a shim or a piece of material was fitted to fill that gap, and it was stuffed in there. Well, the production processes have advanced a little bit and become automated. But in the case of the 787, that automated process is not... In one case that Boeing cited, weren't talking about the horizontal, I think it was horizontal stabilizers. They had a shimming issue that was revealed in one of their Utah plants.

                                    It was the software wasn't set right for a subset. But there have been a series of these, again, over the entire production lifetime of the 787, where they just haven't been able to get the shimming right. Where it becomes an issue is if it's in a place where it's combined with another problem, and you asked about the other problems, that skin smooth, the smoothness. And Guy wrote a brilliant story about this earlier this year, so I'll let him talk about the challenge of composites here in a minute, but getting those layers of composites completely smooth in multiple pieces, so when you mate them together, you have a nice smooth line going across those, say fuselage barrel sections. If that it's not right, and then the shimming between those two sections isn't right, you may have an issue that rises to the level of a safety of flight issue.

                                    Boeing had that issue on eight airplanes they found last year. Those are the only eight airplanes they flagged as having safety of flight issues with any of these. So shimming is an issue. Now, the shimming's all over the airplane. Skin smoothness is an issue. A more recent issue, a nonconforming titanium part that came out of a supplier to Leonardo, which is a Boeing supplier. That one is probably the newest one that has come to light that's 787 program specific, but Boeing says they have a very tight grasp on that issue, because they know exactly which parts are affected, they know exactly which airplanes have the parts.

                                    So while swapping them out is, it's going to add rework to the affected to airplanes, it doesn't create a safety of flight issue in service, at least not so far, based on Boeing's analysis, and it's not necessarily going to add to delivery. Another issue that's been recently reported is on composite construction. Too early to understand what, if any, ramifications it's going to have on the 787 program. It appears to it be a process issue that is not 787 specific, not even Boeing specific, but has to do with composites.

Joe Anselmo:           Guy Norris, we were talking before we hit record, and you were reminding me that this is a revolutionary airplane, revolutionary airframe with all the composites, and that plays into it. You want to help explain for us what you mean?

Guy Norris:               Yeah, I think it's important to remember that, Joe, that when we think about where we are in the history of air transport, it's very easy to forget, particularly for a younger audience, just how amazing that we are now talking about an airframe's 50% composite it in terms of its weight and the structure of the prime, the use of composites as a primary structure and the fuselage wing's empennage. This is the world's first widebody composite aircraft, primarily composite aircraft, and people forget that. And if you look back, it's... I think part of the reason that we are having this sort of issue now, deep into the program, into its production life, is that, because it's still a pioneer in its field, new lessons have been learned literally every day on a program that would be considered mature by any aluminum airplane standard.

                                    So I just want to wind the clock back a little bit. Think about 2007, when the first airframe had been put together. And Sean kind of alluded to this. This is how far back these things. The nose section, section 41 had been put together for the first time with the fuselage. And to everybody's amazement, there was a gap of, I think it was 0.3 of an inch, which nobody could believe it was out of alignment. And the reason was that they hadn't put the secondary support structure to that section before it was being put together with the rest of the fuselage, and its sagged, essentially, under its own weight. And this is the sort of thing, it was a principle basic lesson that was learned for the first time. And of course, that's just a sort of an example of how things, which in aluminum airplane, which people had been used to dealing with for seven generations, or seven decades or something, took for granted.

The other thing about it is of course, as again, as Sean alluded to, you're dealing with a vast, huge network of suppliers, all responsible for large chunks of airframe, that are coming together from all over the world, and you're doing it in huge numbers too as well. Remember, the 78 was the first widebody to look towards production at a rate of 14 a month, so that target was well on the way. So you're talking about huge numbers as well, and the chances of misalignment or going out of spec, out of tolerance are... Statistically, you're going to start seeing that more, because you're simply talking about more product coming through. So I think just looking back at it, it's not surprising that, across the span of aviation history, that in 2021 a company still making the first wide body composite should be suffering some sort of teething issues.

                                    I'm not saying it's an excuse. I'm just saying that it's not maybe surprising. The other thing is that, if you look at the way Boeing chose to do the 787, as opposed to say Airbus on the 350, which is the nearest comparable program, the fuselage structure, Airbus decided, because it really wasn't sure about the use of single barrel composites in that large scale, it elected to design the 350 using a sort of segmented fuselage panels approach. Now, Boeing's approach is, you could say, more challenging because of that. So that might be another area where you're seeing still issues with tolerances.

Joe Anselmo:           Guy, I mentioned the 737 MAX at the beginning, but I think it's important to reiterate. This is a completely different issue, right? The 787 is not grounded. Nobody is saying it's unsafe to fly in a 787, right?

Guy Norris:               Right. Yeah, that's true. And again, Sean did mention that there were some limited safety concerns when you had the combination of out of tolerances and shimming issues on the same airframes, but the vast majority don't have both of these issues. And just very quickly, I think we should talk about why it important, from a safety perspective, that you get these shims dead on and you get smooth skins. So let's talk about that. The main reason, I think, is that you have to remember that composites structures are very stiff. When you put them together, they're not like your good old aluminum airplane, which sort of bounces around, is very flexible. And because of that, it means that when you put composite sections together as a complete airframe, you have to make sure that the load that transfers between those sections is absolutely smoothly transferred.

                                    So if you don't, you get these little stress buildups, and that's where the importance of shims is vital, because you don't want any wrinkled skin surfaces or shims that are improperly connected, because that interrupts that transfer of loads across those sections. And the point about that at is that it's not like the airplane's going to fall apart in the sky. You're not talking about a catastrophic failure. What you are talking about is a shortened structural life, and that means... That's also important because it's a vital part of Boeing's economic model for the 787. You're talking about an airframe that theoretically can go three times longer than an aluminum airframe. So it was a vital part of their model going into the whole program that you had to have that life, and that life had to be substantiated in tests.

                                    And of course it was, but each individual airframe, as it rolls through the line, if it's compromised in any way by these issues, then, as Sean said, you've got to go back and start looking at the analysis and figure out how badly affected it is. So that's why it's important. And just the last point, I should say, in terms of the wrinkled skin side of things, so that's the issue with composites. Because you're talking about lots of plies of different material, all put together in a sandwich, essentially. If you can't see inside that sandwich, you really can't tell whether there's wrinkles or not. So, this is another part of the complication of composites. Visual inspection is not an easy thing to do. And part of Boeing's problem right now is to evaluate a non-destructive testing process that will enable people around the world that 787's already in service, just to go and inspect something that's almost invisible to the eye and do it in a way that's not going to mean taking the whole airframe apart, essentially.

                                    So very quickly, wrinkled ply, all this waviness in composite laminates can reduce static strength by 10%, in some cases, or up to 25% in more extreme cases. And crucially, fatigue life is also reduced by a factor of 10, at least 10. So those are pretty important numbers to bear in mind. And the eight aircraft that Sean mentioned earlier on, they were all produced in 2019, right? Sean, I think.

Sean Broderick:      I think so, yeah.

Guy Norris:               Exactly. And they were both affected by the shimming and the skin surface smoothness issues. And that's why Boeing thought they may not have met these limit load requirements as a result, and that's why they were the key ones. But anyway, that's the bottom line.

Joe Anselmo:           Well, Sean, we're running short on time, but I wanted to give you the final word. I did notice that you wrote in your article about lingering disagreement between Boeing and the FAA. I thought they had sort of patched things up a little bit after the MAX saga and that relationship was going better. What's going on?

Sean Broderick:      Well, I think it's fair to say the relationship is going better, but what has changed is the FAA is dictating much more how the relationship is going to go. Again, they are being much more diligent in the kind of information analysis that they're asking for from Boeing, not just on the 78, but on everything that Boeing's done. Interesting note about that, it isn't as if the FAA just woke up and said, "Wow, composites. This is in Boeing. Boy, we better start paying attention to this." I mean, back when they were approving the 787, including approving the suppliers, they spent a lot of money going around the world to look at that process that Guy talked about, understanding that it's not just the final product that you have to look at here with the composites. It's also very much the process of how these things are made.

                                    The FAA understood that. When South Carolina opened, the FAA maintained the process of approving airworthiness certificates for each and individual airplane coming off the line of South Carolina for a long time. So they've recognized that what Boeing has done with the 78, originally having the two production lines for a while, building a composite airframe, and the economic aspirations, let's say, that the company has had over the last 10 years, all created some perhaps areas that required enhanced oversight. So, what's been happening over the last year is that the FAA is really leaning hard into that and saying, "You've got to show us, Boeing, that your analysis is spot on, that what you say may happen with the airplanes in service, most of them probably fixed in routine maintenance checks." Again, that Guy says are much further apart than metal airplanes. "You've got to show us that all that is accurate before we sign off on your plans."

                                    The focus for the last year has been getting airplanes delivered. Boeing hasn't been able to satisfy yet FAA's requests on “Show us what you're telling us is accurate, show us where you're getting the data, and validate it.” And so Boeing is working on that, but also they've gone back to airframe by airframe checks on the issues they understand, like the shimming in the rear fuselage.

Joe Anselmo:           Okay. We're about out of time, but Guy, you look like you're chomping at the bit to add something to that. Two minutes.

Guy Norris:               I think it's fair to say that Boeing's relationship with the FAA has completely had to be rewritten because of what's obviously happened with The MAX. I mean, look at the 777X for example, the hoops that Boeing is going through to get type inspection authorization. But I think we're getting there. And I think at the Dubai Airshow, which we were at recently, Boeing was, for the first time, really, since this all kind of went down, beginning to talk quite more openly, really, about its better, improving relationship with the FAA, and the fact that, for example, ground certification testing for the 777X has quietly begun. So you're beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel there. And I think, to Sean's point, it's a sort of a work in progress. And we're going to see a lot more changes. Really, next year is going to be crucial for all of this, I think.

Sean Broderick:      Just don't ask us when they're going to start delivering 787s again, because nobody with any intelligence is going to answer that question intelligently.

Joe Anselmo:           Okay. Well, on that note, I am sure that Sean, you and Guy will be continuing to follow this closely in Aviation Week magazine, Aviation Daily, and the Aviation Week Intelligence Network. Thanks to both you for all those valuable insights. That is a wrap for this week's Check 6, which is available for download on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and Spotify. Special thanks to our producer in Washington, DC, Michael Johnson. Thank you for your time, and join us again next week for another Check 6.

Joe Anselmo

Joe Anselmo has been Editorial Director of the Aviation Week Network and Editor-in-Chief of Aviation Week & Space Technology since 2013. Based in Washington, D.C., he directs a team of more than two dozen aerospace journalists across the U.S., Europe and Asia-Pacific.

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.

Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.


1 Comment
Good information. Thanks...