As if commercial aircraft manufacturer Boeing did not have enough reputational challenges associated with the now 18-month long grounding of the 737 MAX aircraft, industry headlines are now focused on multiple suspected manufacturing or quality control lapses related to the separate wide-aisle 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
Reports indicate that the manufacturer has identified four different manufacturing flaws related to 787 manufacturing process that are identified and being reviewed with regulators and airline customers.
Bloomberg, Aviation Week and The Wall Street Journal have each reported that government documents and people familiar with matters indicate that Boeing engineers have been made aware of these deficiencies that reportedly do not meet the company’s design and manufacturing standards.
One issue concerns improper gaps or shim installation in the aircraft horizontal stabilizer located on the aircraft tail. Bloomberg cited an informed but unnamed source as indicating that the stabilizer shim gap issue could exist in about 900 of the now manufactured aircraft and could possibly lead to premature aging of the carbon-fiber structure of this small wing. A separate fuselage gap issue prompted the immediate grounding of eight operational jets. A further fault reportedly involves a slight depression where the plane’s vertical fin joins the fuselage, which was initially identified in late 2019. The latter issue reportedly requires a one-time inspection.
The Wall Street Journal indicated in its reporting that the “nonconforming” sections of the rear fuselage prompted a high-level FAA review to consider whether enhanced or accelerated inspections would need to be conducted by airlines on as many as 900 aircraft delivered since 2011. The report further cited informed sources as indicating that deliberations within the FAA about any mandated inspections or the extent of aircraft inspections have been underway for months.
For its part, Boeing has stated to news agencies that the company is taking the time to thoroughly inspect completed 787’s to ensure that they are free of issues and meet all engineering specifications prior to delivery.
The FAA has since released a statement indicating the agency is investigating manufacturing flaws affecting certain Boeing 787 jetliners and that it is too early to speculate on the nature and extent of any proposed airworthiness directives.
These developments, coupled with previous reports of workers leaving debris inside internal portions of the aircraft including its tail section, large numbers of quality shortfalls related to newly produced KC-46A military air-refueling tankers and of-course, the 737 MAX aircraft are again prompting fears for another tarnish for Boeing‘s engineering and manufacturing reputation.
While these 787 manufacturing and potential quality lapse issues are gaining visibility, a significant decision is under consideration by Boeing senior management regarding the production of future 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
The manufacturer continues to experience significant cost and profitability challenges as a result of the ongoing grounding of multiple operational or completed 737 MAX aircraft. Demand for delivery of new wide-aisle aircraft such as the 787 Dreamliner has further been dramatically reduced because of the sudden drop in international air travel as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic.
The implication is that monthly production of Dreamliners among two separate production facilities, one in North Charleston South Carolina, the other in Renton Washington, is likely not feasible given current global demand levels and reduced production needs.
Industry media has been of late focused on the significant implications for both locations in terms of employment retention and longer-term production viability. The stakes are enormous.
The Renton facility is especially at-risk with the dramatic reduction in 737 single aisle aircraft monthly production levels over the coming 2-3 years, and no new single-aisle aircraft development program in the pipeline. When the 787 program was initially introduced, the decision to source production in South Carolina was met with a lot of internal resistance in that the Renton manufacturing facility is unionized whereas the North Charleston facility is not.
This is obviously a very high stakes decision for Boeing and its manufacturing workforce. This being the year of the U.S. Presidential election adds additional political backdrop since Boeing was initially lobbying for government stimulus monies, but that was withdrawn.
Whether there is any correlation to the now more visible 787 manufacturing and quality conformance lapses is speculation on the part of Supply Chain Matters. Then again, Boeing remains challenged in repairing its tarnished engineering-driven culture lapses.
What appears clear is that Boeing’s supply network partners will likely have to wade through a further critical uncertainty, where will 787 production ultimately reside and what does that imply.
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