Quality Assurance: Another Challenge for Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner

The problems and delays plaguing development and construction of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner continue. The latest, as reported by Jon Ostrower on Flightblogger, have to do with problems in processes for quality assurance.

The milestone known as “power-on” of the first aircraft, scheduled for as early as mid-April, may be pushed back to June.

According to program sources, the slow pace of work in recent months can largely be attributed to what are known as rejection tags. Those tags occur when a discrepancy exists between the design and the product. For example, during the normal manufacturing process, holes are drilled to install fasteners. Occasionally, those holes have to be drilled a second time if there is an issue with the first hole. As a result, the hole is considered to be “non-conforming” requiring a larger diameter fastener and must be checked through a quality certification process.

One foundational tenet of the 787 program, according to program sources working with the aircraft, was the idea of a “super-mechanic” who held all the necessary certifications to self check work to appropriate airworthiness standards.

According to sources across the program, over the past year of assembly the self-certification process has become an impediment to progress rather than an enabler of efficiency.

As a result, the 787 program has begun to shift from a system of self-certifying manufacturing staff to a more traditional system of quality assurance similar to Boeing’s legacy programs. The revised system is first being implemented for out-of-sequence traveled work and is expected to be expanded to the entire final assembly process.

The revised system is a “positive step,” says one person working with the aircraft.

By using its traditional quality assurance system, Boeing is able to better control and group the number of rejection tags to reduce paperwork and solution time. For example, under the original system, four non-conforming holes in the same area of the aircraft were filed as four individual issues rather than just one. The new system would streamline the process by grouping these rejection tags together, cutting paperwork, in this example, by 75%.

Quality assurance is not my area of expertise, so I’m not sure which of these two systems is more “lean” or ought to be better. However, I have to wonder why Boeing, which has long experience in trying to make its processes lean, chose to adopt a new system for this aircraft.

Also, I wonder whether anyone is doing some serious root-cause analysis to figure out why these discrepancies between design and product take place, and what can be done to eliminate them, or at least reduce their frequency.

Meanwhile, Ostrower also reports significant variability regarding how much further work is required after major suppliers of the Dreamliner deliver key sections.

If you walk from one end to another, Dreamliner Two looks like a, “Timeline from nose to tail. The farther you go back, the more work it needs,” says a 787 program staffer. The front of the aircraft, Section 41, the nose section, was delivered from Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita, Kansas 97% complete, according to program sources in Everett.

The center fuselage, say sources in Charleston, which is assembled at Global Aeronautica in Charleston contained significant wiring, flight test equipment, ducting, systems and insulation in the forward Section 43 and the center wing box, but significantly less in Sections 44 and 46 toward the rear of the aircraft.

The aft fuselage, Sections 47 and 48, which is manufactured and assembled by Vought Aircraft Industries, is the largest source of traveled work, according to sources in Everett and Charleston. The aft fuselage, which was delivered in early February, had roughly a dozen jobs remaining before it could be considered structurally complete. It lacked any wiring, ducting, insulation or systems when it departed Charleston for Everett.

First, this problem reinforces the questions raised about Boeing’s strategy of outsourcing so much of the airplane’s development to far-flung suppliers. Second, it highlights the need in any supply chain for close working relationships between partners to avoid major surprises.

The hundreds of Dreamliners that have been ordered will ultimately be built. Unfortunately, it appears that many of Boeing’s customers may be waiting for them longer than anyone had thought, and probably longer than necessary.


Ed. said...

The issue of why an organisation would revert to an antiquated verification system, having initiated one of 'on the job' control can only be guessed at. My guess would be that the system failures identified here would be put to the traditional 'Quality Professionals' whose reaction would be one of reversion to the control strategy that has no great record of resolving operational failings either. A professional management solution surely would be to analyse the current failure causes and correct them. Taking responsibility away from people who do the work does not improve the quality of that work.

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