Airbus: a note of caution

While it's fun to sit back a watch the troubles Airbus is having today with the A380 and, the A350 or A370 or whatever the current designation of its competitor to the 787 will be, I think now is a good time to reflect on the fact that Boeing hasn't delivered on it's promises yet.

Much of Boeing's current success, and Airbus's woes, are based on an aircraft that hasn't flown yet.  In many ways, the 787 is an even more radical aircraft than the A380.  While it may look conventional, the 787 features more use of composites then any commercial aircraft every flown. 

It's worth recalling that the last aircraft that featured a composite fuselage and wings, Beech Aircraft's Starship, failed to meet its performance goals.  Ultimately that airplane was deemed a commercial failure and production stopped after fewer then 60 were sold.  Adding to the risk is that the 787's systems are as radical as its airframe, with a much greater reliance on electrical equipment to reduce dependence on engine bleed air and hydraulic actuators. 

These advances have the potential to save airlines (and consumers) millions of dollars over the live of the 787, but they've never been put together on a single aircraft before.

Perhaps the single largest risk Boeing is running is the extent to which the 787 is being outsourced.  Almost 70% of the airframe is being outsourced to companies around the world.  This outsourcing also involves an unprecedented amount of design work, where the vender, not Boeing, will be responsible for the design of parts and systems on the 787.  

On paper this sounds great, with the risk and costs of the 787 being spread across dozens of major companies and thousands of smaller ones.  But it also leaves Boeing at the mercy of thousands of people over whom Boeing has no oversight or control. 

One of the most critical components of the 787 is the center wing box, which is being manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan.  These guys are very good and very experienced (they build composite structures for Japan's F—2 fighter)  However, the culture in Japan is very different than it is here, and if there is a problem with the structure being built for the 787, Boeing will have a difficult time working to solve that problem without offending their Japanese partners. 

That's just one part, one company and one country.   Multiply that hundreds, and you can begin to imagine the magnitude of Boeing's task.

So be prepared, problems with the 787 will arise, and the Europeans will have their opportunity to enjoy some schadenfreude at our expense.  However, in the end the truest measure of a companies prowess, is its ability to deal with the unexpected and turn problems into opportunities.  For that, my money's still on Boeing. 

Steven W Dugger    6 22 06

While it's fun to sit back a watch the troubles Airbus is having today with the A380 and, the A350 or A370 or whatever the current designation of its competitor to the 787 will be, I think now is a good time to reflect on the fact that Boeing hasn't delivered on it's promises yet.

Much of Boeing's current success, and Airbus's woes, are based on an aircraft that hasn't flown yet.  In many ways, the 787 is an even more radical aircraft than the A380.  While it may look conventional, the 787 features more use of composites then any commercial aircraft every flown. 

It's worth recalling that the last aircraft that featured a composite fuselage and wings, Beech Aircraft's Starship, failed to meet its performance goals.  Ultimately that airplane was deemed a commercial failure and production stopped after fewer then 60 were sold.  Adding to the risk is that the 787's systems are as radical as its airframe, with a much greater reliance on electrical equipment to reduce dependence on engine bleed air and hydraulic actuators. 

These advances have the potential to save airlines (and consumers) millions of dollars over the live of the 787, but they've never been put together on a single aircraft before.

Perhaps the single largest risk Boeing is running is the extent to which the 787 is being outsourced.  Almost 70% of the airframe is being outsourced to companies around the world.  This outsourcing also involves an unprecedented amount of design work, where the vender, not Boeing, will be responsible for the design of parts and systems on the 787.  

On paper this sounds great, with the risk and costs of the 787 being spread across dozens of major companies and thousands of smaller ones.  But it also leaves Boeing at the mercy of thousands of people over whom Boeing has no oversight or control. 

One of the most critical components of the 787 is the center wing box, which is being manufactured by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Japan.  These guys are very good and very experienced (they build composite structures for Japan's F—2 fighter)  However, the culture in Japan is very different than it is here, and if there is a problem with the structure being built for the 787, Boeing will have a difficult time working to solve that problem without offending their Japanese partners. 

That's just one part, one company and one country.   Multiply that hundreds, and you can begin to imagine the magnitude of Boeing's task.

So be prepared, problems with the 787 will arise, and the Europeans will have their opportunity to enjoy some schadenfreude at our expense.  However, in the end the truest measure of a companies prowess, is its ability to deal with the unexpected and turn problems into opportunities.  For that, my money's still on Boeing. 

Steven W Dugger    6 22 06