Many observers of commercial aerospace supply chains including Supply Chain Matters were anticipating forms of supply disruption and now we have a visible indication.
The Wall Street Journal reported today (paid subscription required) that a key supplier within Boeing’s 737 MAX program is wrestling with production ramp-up supply issues related to an engine thrust reverser. Difficulties in consistently manufacturing this part are apparently been flagged by Boeing as a significant development challenge for its commercial aircraft business.
According to the report, supplier GKN PLC will not be able to produce quantities of the new engine thrust reverser to support the ramp-up production needs of the newest version 737 MAX.
The problem is associated with the inner wall of the thrust reverser which is composed of a honeycomb titanium design to fit both size restrictions and withstand rather high engine temperatures. Key supplier Spirit AeroSystems transferred responsibility for working with component supplier GKN back to Boeing, because of the technical challenges.
The fact that volume production of the new thrust reverser is being flagged two years before planned first customer ship scheduled for 2017 is a good sign. However, as the article points out, initial prototype production is already underway including the wings, fuselage and new dedicated assembly line.
Boeing currently has firm orders for over 2800 of the new 737 MAX with plans to raise all models of 737 production volumes to 47 per month in 2017 and 52 per month in 2018. The 737 serves as the prime profitability engine for Boeing’s commercial business, hence it garners lots of attention.
The report indicates that Boeing executives have acknowledged the supplier and design challenge but indicate confidence that adequate resources and attention are being applied. A GKN spokeswoman declined comment to the WSJ and referred the question back to Boeing.
More than likely, there will be more supply challenges flagged for both Boeing and Airbus as each manufacturer strives to ramp-up production to unprecedented levels over the coming months and years. As always, the question will remain how each manufacturer responds to these challenges and proactively works with suppliers and design teams to resolve challenges on a timely basis.