Boeing's 787 Supply Fiasco

Earlier in the week, I came across this Wall Street Journal article (registration and subscription required) noting that Boeing will miss delivery dates for the 787 thanks to supply related issues. According to the article, "although the delay is likely to be an embarrassment to Boeing, it comes as little surprise to many in the aerospace industry. Since summer, the entire industry has been beset by a shortage in titanium and aluminum fasteners used to hold airplanes together. Boeing's problems were exacerbated because suppliers were also having to master new manufacturing techniques associated with building much of the fuselage from carbon-fiber composites rather than aluminum." The article goes on to note that "suppliers who are working on major assemblies for subsequent airplanes have had trouble getting some of the parts they need to complete them, making it necessary for Boeing to rework the schedule ... According to people familiar with the program, suppliers at factories in Italy, Japan and the U.S. continue to experience chronic parts shortages that have slowed the completion of the first six flight-test airplanes."

But Boeing is not sitting idle on the supplier development front. According to the news, they confirmed sending "hundreds of engineers to help smaller third-tier suppliers in places such as Israel meet the demand for components such as vertical frames that the larger suppliers need to complete their sections of the plane's fuselage." As I look at the launch issues surrounding the 787, I can't help but think that investments in performance monitoring and PLM collaboration technology could have provided earlier warning of these issues. Considering that Boeing is held up as the poster-child for supplier collaboration in manufacturing, I wonder what -- if anything -- might have prevented these supply shortages from happening. In any event, Boeing's delay is proof that even the most well thought-out supply strategies can sometimes come up short.

Jason Busch

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