Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Big changes for 787 program as manufacturing defects, demand and Covid-19 sends Dreamliners into storage

The past year has been a challenging one for the Boeing 787 program.

Even before COVID-19 became a household word, global commercial aviation was already facing a downtrend in the demand for widebody aircraft like the 787.  2019 saw a decrease in new 787 orders to such a point that Boeing was considering a rate cut. Covid-19 added to the production and delivery stresses for the 787 but now the manufacturing issues with the circumferential fuselage join where the skin of the airplane does not meet certain flatness or smoothness criteria at the the areas of fuselage join has all but stopped 787 deliveries though Boeing still is continuing to push production through both 787 final assembly lines though at a vastly reduced rate.  These two factors have created a glut of stored 787s at Charleston, Everett as well as at Victorville and a couple other smaller sites around the country.

However, the issue is not relegated to just newly assembled aircraft at Everett and Charleston or stored airplanes but also to those in service with airlines around the world.  Those Dreamliners will have to be checked during their next maintenance period and then repaired.

Some readers may recall that earlier this year, a few of Boeing's customers had to ground 8 newly built 787s because of 2 separate improper manufacturing issues that, when combined, had weakened the rear fuselage sections (sections 47/48) of the each of the grounded Dreamliners.  

Now the new issue surrounding the circumferential fuselage join where the sections of the 787 are mated and fastened together can have gaps that are created by the manufacturing flaw.  The flaw is not related to work done at any one location or by any one of Boeing's partners but is related to how the strips of carbon fiber tape are laid on the fuselage mold and cured in the high temperature and pressure autoclaves.  Boeing is still investigating how this issue has developed but it appears that they have a fix or are in the process of developing a fix.

Now this issue has huge implications for Everett and Charleston and the move of all final assembly work from Washington State to South Carolina.  The last Everett produced 787 will be a 787-9 for Hawaiian Airlines (ZE315, LN 1129).  

In a letter leaked to this blog, Lane Ballard, 787 program vice president and general manager and BSC site leader, says that Boeing has been "performing quality inspections related to fuselage skin flatness and shimming on all aspects of the 787 fuselage join. These inspections are taking place on yet-to-be-delivered airplanes" to ensure quality of the airplanes to be delivered. Boeing is also engaging in join verification requirements during in sequence assembly at each final assembly position.

However there is some big news concerning Everett's involvement in addressing the manufacturing issues amongst the fleet of built but yet to be delivered 787s that are being stored. Boeing is currently planning to simultaneously reduced the 787 build rate to 5/month and transfer all 787 final assembly to Charleston in March 2021. This means that there is freed up space at Everett to do the join verification and inspections as well as the rework of those affected joins thus while production has stopped at 40-26, there will be on going work to correct the manufacturing issues taking place at Everett's newly abandoned final assembly line. The join verification, inspection and rework to current in production 787s will also slow down final assembly in order that this work be done properly.

According to Ballard, Boeing South Carolina will also free up space in two final assembly positions in 88-30 for the inspections and rework: "All four of the current Everett 787 final assembly positions will become join verification positions, and two additional positions will continue to be utilized in the Butler building (building 45-12) at the Everett site. Additional join verification positions will be created in the South Carolina final assembly facility, while the balance will remain production positions." Boeing's "intent is to leverage additional resources in Mid Body, Aft Body and Everett Final Assembly to staff the respective join verification positions at their location. This join verification activity, however, will likely extend 787 work in Everett beyond the production consolidation plan." 

Ballard also added that "Airplanes that are stored until delivery, and airplanes currently in our production system, will go through this join verification process. Stored airplanes assembled in Everett will go to Everett for join inspection and delivery, and stored airplanes assembled in South Carolina will go to South Carolina for join inspection and delivery."

It remains to be seen how deliveries in 2021 will be impacted but currently Boeing has 88 787s that are in final assembly or in pre-delivery (including storage, and predelivery test flights or awaiting the start of test flights).  This back log will undoubtedly grow in the first quarter of 2021 but should start to shrink around March-April as the program breaks rate to 5 per month and the first few airplanes to complete the inspections and rework are delivered.

Boeing's ability to deliver 787s to customer's is also going to be impacted by the financial health of those customers themselves.  Covid-19 has hit the airlines extremely hard and I don't believe that some of these airlines will survive let alone be in a financially stable condition to accept new 787s.  Norwegian is one airline that comes to mind.  They have been in trouble even before the pandemic but the drastic reduction in revenues makes their viability to continue doubtful.  The airline recovery from Covid-19 as well as the 787 delivery skyline is dependent on the availability of the newly approved vaccines not just here in the United States but elsewhere around the world.  Transmission rates worldwide need to come down if intercontinental travel that utilizes the 787 is to recover.

Lastly, I want to add a word about the future of this blog and the spreadsheets I use to track the 787 program.  I know I've been away for over a year (due to demands of my regular job) but I plan on continuing to post 787 updates when I can but unfortunately I have lost several sources that have been invaluable to this blog and to posting updates to the 787 spreadsheets.  I'll try to update the spreadsheets as best as I can but unless I get new sources of solid information it will be difficult.  If there are any followers/readers of this blog out there who can supply me with information, I as well well as the followers of this blog will be most appreciative.  Please reach out to me.

787 Spreadsheets