Boeing announced yesterday another delay in its long awaited first flight citing a need to reinforce a side-of-body section of the plane according to this story in Crain’s Chicago. Having listened in on Boeing’s special webcast to talk about the delay we thought it might make sense to look at this not from a shareholder or stock analyst angle but from a supply chain management and strategic sourcing one. And since this latest delay (and solution) relates to a handful of metal parts, we wanted to better understand Boeing’s process for identifying and resolving issues and then comment on the delay itself.
During standard test procedures, Boeing identified Ã‹Å“stress’ in the side body structure where the side body joins the wing. In particular, where the upper portion of the wing and the side of body join totaling 18 locations on either side of the plane. The areas are small, one to two square inches but involve an integrated design solution as the wings come from Mitsubishi and the side of body from Fuji. The parts needed to resolve the issue will either be made from titanium or aluminum. Boeing stated that they have staged material in our fabrication division and the likely solution can be retrofitted in production plans keeping everything else in-flow.
Boeing made much mention of two supply chain concepts ” re-anchoring the model and staying in process,” worthy of some comments. To outside observers, these two points may sound like a bunch of hooey but in fact, remain critical to the overall product development process, production process, certification and quality processes. Let’s examine each in turn. The notion of re-anchoring the model refers to the predictive models developed by Boeing (and key integrated supply chain partners) and the testing of those models via static and flight testing. In this case, the stress detected on these structures during static testing suggested the results diverged from the model enough to cause the design engineers to re-anchor the model by reinforcing the structure. Because this is an integrated design issue the solution requires a close collaboration among Mitsubishi, Fuji and Boeing.
Now for the concept of staying in process. Despite the tremendous pressure to launch products according to schedule and to what had been previously communicated to Wall Street, Boeing has consistently relied on its design and testing process to guide it’s actions. Big problems arise when activities and work get conducted outside the process. The process itself is what ensures quality.
In Boeing’s defense, the company pioneered the concept of cross-functional teams working to design and build key systems and components as part of the 777 program (incidentally, Boeing has received numerous awards for this process innovation). And again with the 787, we have a new production/design process in the form of external supplier collaboration, previously untested. Though this creates new challenges, it also provides benefits in that the key suppliers involved in the solution can work 24/7 to resolve issues.
All things being equal, I’d rather take a short term setback than suffer the consequences of not adhering to the process.