Boeing Hits a Hitch in 'Dreamliner' Fuselage

By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 15, 2009

Boeing said it has halted production of large fuselage sections for the 787 "Dreamliner," the latest problem for a delay-plagued airplane that the aerospace giant is counting on to be its next big moneymaker.

Analysts have described the design of the 787 as revolutionary, due to in large part to the use of advanced composite materials aimed at making the plane lighter and more fuel-efficient. But the design, coupled with a production shift that relies on suppliers' own design work, has put the 787 nearly two years behind schedule.

Boeing is the world's largest aircraft manufacturer and a giant of industrial America. Tens of thousands of U.S. factory jobs are tied to its production lines, making Boeing so big that a strike last year contributed to the steepest monthly drop in U.S. industrial production in 34 years.

Lori Gunter, a Boeing spokeswoman, said Italian production partner Alenia Aeronautica, has stopped making the barreled pieces of the 787's midsection because of a flaw in the manufacturing process. The flaw caused microscopic wrinkles in structural supports, called stringers, that run the length of the airframe. So far, Alenia has made flawed components for 23 airplanes. The pieces are currently scattered at different points along the company's far-flung global supply chain.

Boeing has developed a patch made of composite materials to repair the existing plane sections, Gunter said. Newer sections will be made using a different manufacturing process, she added.

She said workers at the Grottaglie, Italy, plant that builds the components will focus on other 787 work until the manufacturing changes are made.

"From the company's standpoint, this is not a big problem at all," Gunter said. "This is the kind of thing you find on a brand-new production system."

The 787 design depends heavily on advanced plastics and carbon fiber instead of traditional aluminum. The materials are supposed to make the plane lighter and much less of a fuel-guzzler than other big jets. The promise of fuel savings has generated interest from airlines around the world in the 787, which lists for $150 to $250 million. Boeing has about $170 billion worth of orders for the 787 on its books.

Boeing's handling of the 787, however, has come under fire from analysts and labor groups who have questioned the company's strategy of farming out large sections of the plane to contractors. The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers has consistently complained about the company's subcontracting work, and last year Boeing stepped in to partially buy out a supplier as program delays piled up.

At the same time, Boeing has steadily lost orders for the plane. Gunter said Boeing currently has 850 orders. The company reported 895 orders in September 2008.

Boeing has yet to reveal when the 787 will make its maiden voyage or when the first completed planes will be delivered to customers.

Boeing shares fell $1.75, or 3.8 percent, Friday to $44.87.

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