Boeing 787 in bad dream (liner) for jet maker
BY Staff and Wire Reports
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
1/29/13 at 7:14 AM
The 787 Dreamliner was born in a moment of desperation.
It was 2003 and Boeing - the company that defined modern air travel - had just lost its title as the world's largest plane manufacturer to European rival Airbus. Its CEO had resigned in a defense-contract scandal. And its stock had plunged to the lowest price in a decade.
Two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, financially troubled airlines were reluctant to buy new planes. Boeing needed something revolutionary to win back customers.
Salvation had a code name: Yellowstone.
It was a plane that promised to be lighter and more technologically advanced than any other. Half of it would be built with new plastics instead of aluminum. The cabin would be more comfortable for passengers, and airlines could cut their fuel bills by 20 percent.
But once production started, the gap between vision and reality quickly widened. The jet that was eventually dubbed the Dreamliner became plagued with manufacturing delays, cost overruns and sinking worker morale.
In interviews with The Associated Press, a dozen former Boeing engineers, designers and managers recounted the pressure to meet tight deadlines. Adding to the chaos was the company's never-before-tried plan to build a plane from parts made around the globe.
The former Boeing workers still stand behind the jetliner - and are proud to have worked on it. But many question whether the rush contributed to a series of problems, including an All Nippon Airways plane making an emergency landing in Japan earlier this month when its main battery overheated, and a battery in a Japan Airlines 787 catching fire while parked at Boston's Logan International Airport.
Those incidents caused the Federal Aviation Administration recently to take the extraordinary step of grounding the 787. Other countries did the same, putting all 50 active planes on the ground.
On Monday, the joint U.S. and Japanese investigation into battery problems shifted from the battery-maker to the manufacturer of a monitoring system.
Japan transport ministry official Shigeru Takano said the probe into battery-maker GS Yuasa was over for now as no evidence was found it was the source of the problems.
Ministry officials said they now will inspect Kanto Aircraft Instrument Co. It makes a system that monitors voltage, charging and temperature of the lithium-ion batteries.
Even before a single bolt was tightened, the Dreamliner was different. Because executives didn't want to risk all of the billions of dollars necessary to build a new commercial aircraft, they came up with a novel, but precarious, solution.
A global network of suppliers would develop, and then build, most of the parts in locations as far away as Germany, Japan and Sweden. Boeing's own employees would manufacture just 35 percent of the plane before assembling the final aircraft at its plant outside Seattle.
The decision haunts Boeing to this day.
Boeing said its engineers are working around the clock to fix the recent problems.
"Until those investigations conclude, we can't speculate on what the results may be," the company said in a statement. "We are confident the 787 is safe."
Boeing designed the Dreamliner to be innovative.
Half of its structure would be made of plastics reinforced with carbon fiber, a composite material that is both lighter and stronger than aluminum. In another first, the plane would rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to start its auxiliary power unit, which provides power on the ground or if the main engines quit.
The plane's extra strength allowed for larger windows and a more comfortable cabin pressure. Before a single aircraft was built, the plane was an instant hit, becoming the fastest-selling new jet in history. Advance orders were placed for more than 800 planes.
The project was good news for some Tulsa-area companies that got contracts, such as Spirit AeroSystems and NORDAM.
But the decision to use a global chain of suppliers backfired as production problems quickly surfaced.
First, there were problems with the molding of the new plastics. Then parts made by different suppliers didn't fit properly.
By giving up control of its supply chain, Boeing had lost the ability to oversee each step of production. Deadlines came and went.
Now, as investigators try to figure out the cause of the plane's latest problems the world finds itself in a familiar position with the Dreamliner: waiting.
Original Print Headline: Bad dream (liner)
An All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 sits at Takamatsu airport in Japan after it made an emergency landing Jan. 16. The flight to Tokyo from Ube in western Japan landed after a cockpit message showed electrical problems. KYODO NEWS / Associated Press