The Dreamliner: Too much outsourcing or normal teething problems?

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is racking up an unenviable record of problems in its first 14 months of operation, two fires, each in the same general area in separate aircraft, a string of electric problems, and a 40-gal fuel spill from a plane taxiing to the runway to take off. Fortunately no one was hurt, but Boeing stock took a 5% hit, the plane’s getting a less-than stellar reputation, and customers for the 800+ back-ordered 787s might be rethinking their purchases.

Some analysts point to Boeing’s decision to outsource design and manufacturing for the first time. Before the 787, the company kept design in-house. And now it looks like the Dreamliner was not the project to try out this new management idea to spread the developmental and economic risks around. Why take chances on a plane so important to the company’s future, one that would be their first foray into a composite airliner, have a more complicated electrical system, and push the envelope in performance and fuel economy. (The plane did set records in its class for speed and distance, and won the Collier Trophy from the National Aeronautic Assoc. for being the greatest aeronautic achievement in America during 2011.

All these challenges led to the plane being delivered over three years late and development going 120% over budget, skyrocketing from $5.5 billion to $12 billion. In a classic case of understatement, a Boeing spokesperson said last year, “We made too many changes at the same time – new technology, new design tools, and a change in the supply chain – and thus outran our ability to manage it effectively for a period of time.”

Other, calmer analysts say these problems and accidents are just teething problems that can be expected with large, complex planes like the 787. I can recall several planes that had trouble getting out of the starting gates: the F-111, a few of the Airbus airliners and its military tanker, the tiltrotor Osprey, and even the $420 million apiece F-22 all had problems in their early years.

Time and the NTSB will tell.

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