Potential supply chain related problems associated with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner production program gained much higher visibility today with the announcement of two separate incidents involving this aircraft’s powered engines, provided by two different engine suppliers.
Today’s headline is that Boeing and U.S. safety officials are investigating an incident of an inflight engine failure on Saturday of a 787 being final tested for Air India. The incident sparked a subsequent grass fire at the Charleston International Airport which is adjacent to Boeing’s North Charleston final assembly facility. The engines of this aircraft were supplied by General Electric. According to a published report in The Wall Street Journal (paid subscription or free metered view), the focus of scrutiny is on the rear components of the GEnx engine’s turbine sections. A GE spokesperson confirmed that debris exited the rear of the engine and was contained by the casing that surrounds the engine’s hot core. The damaged engine is in process of being shipped to a GE facility for teardown analysis.
According to GE’s web site describing the GEnx, this new engine utilizes the latest generation materials and design processes to reduce weight, improve performance and lower maintenance. The rear turbine blades section is described as featuring: “unique powdered metal rotors, specialized coatings, enhancing cooling techniques and new blade materials — delivering a turbine with the right balance of performance and extended life.” Three weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal featured an article profiling how GE Aircraft was working on successfully overcoming production challenges related to working with new composite materials within engines such as the GEnx.
This latest incident came less than a week after ANA (All Nippon Airways) had to temporarily ground part of its operating 787 fleet after unusual corrosion was found in the gearbox components of the Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engine. ANA, the original launch customer for the 787, indicated that the action stemmed from a flawed process that could leave a certain parts of the Trent 1000 engines vulnerable to early corrosion. According to a report posted by The Sydney Morning Herald, the Trent 1000 engine problem involves a gearbox supplied by Hamilton Sundstrand, part of U.S. conglomerate United Technologies, but for now is contained to one batch. “Two people familiar with the matter said concerns over corrosion came to light during endurance testing in the UK on one of the Trent 1000 engines designed by Rolls-Royce. During the ground test, corrosion was discovered on part of the gearbox used to drive ancillary systems. Investigators traced this to a new manufacturing process that was immediately reversed, the people said, asking not to be named.” The SMH further reported: “A total of 17 engines contain gear boxes from the same suspect batch as the one used in the endurance test, eight of which have been delivered to ANA, industry sources said.”
From a 787 supply chain lens, the obvious question is whether these two separate engine incidents will have any further impact to the already highly stressed 787 production ramp-up program. According to the SMH article, of the total 859 Dreamliners currently ordered, 370 are to include the GEnx engine while 287 are to include the Trent 1000. While it is fairly obvious that Boeing, GE and Rolls Royce will take aggressive actions to determine root cause and remedy any design, production or associated supplier problems related to each engine, government safety agencies and designated 787 customer airlines will now have an added voice in any impacts to the delivery schedule. Customer Air India has already publically demonstrated its displeasure with delays associated with its 27 ordered Dreamliners.
The very last thing that Boeing needs right now is further delays in the program. We suspect that Boeing customers are hoping that these latest engine related incidents will be overcome in an expedient manner without another significant delay to the 787 delivery program.