A lean dream: The 787 Dreamliner

Posted on 18 Jun 2012

In April Boeing's 787 Dreamliner visited the UK as part of a world tour. Roberto Priolo talked to two of the plane’s UK suppliers about the part they play in 'leaning' production and the supply chain in order to deliver the huge backlog of orders for this ingenius example of daring engineering.

The first 787 Dreamliner was delivered in September 2011, and the newest addition to the Boeing fleet is now on everybody’s lips. The aircraft, thanks in part to the extensive use of light materials like carbon fibre, can travel longer distances than any previous Boeing model, while using 20% less fuel. The current production rate for the 787 Dreamliner is 3.5 planes per month, but the company hopes to reach 10 per month by the end of 2013.

This production ramp up is big news for the UK supply chain. Perhaps surprisingly to some, the Dreamliner is 25% UK-made and British suppliers range from SMEs operating in niche markets to international players like Rolls Royce and Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, which have longstanding relationships with Boeing.

The latter has previously supplied landing gears to Boeing’s military programmes, and is now responsible for the design, manufacture and integration of the main and nose landing gears for the 787. In its Gloucester plant, the company produces the 787’s truck beam, one of the components of the main landing gear.

Smoothly does it

Boeing has strongly encouraged its suppliers to introduce new materials for the 787, and, in response, Messier-Bugatti-Dowty has developed a first-in-industry titanium inner cylinder for the landing gear. The company’s Gloucester site specialises in large titanium components and to better respond to increasing demand from Boeing, the site layout has been changed and new equipment has been purchased, to allow for the creation of a high speed titanium flow line. Once up to full production rate, up to 20 truck beams could be coming out of the line every month.

“In a facility our size, the main problem in terms of schedule is the queue time of the machine” – Matthew Taylor, Production Programme Manager, Messier- Bugatti-Dowty

Matthew Taylor, production programme manager at Messier-Bugatti-Dowty, says: “Value stream mapping was one of the key tools we used in order to produce the flow line and to reduce the number of work centres each part visits. Hence reducing queue time for each centre.

“Lead time is our main focus: a titanium forging is in the region of six times the cost of a steel forging. We needed to reduce lead time to control working capital,” he sums up.

Messier-Bugatti-Dowty manufactures a truck beam in eight to nine weeks. In line with value stream maps and what is considered a reasonable flow time, it organises operations in a way that helps smooth the workload while taking into account that production buffers need to be in place to plateau the rates.

Taylor explains: “We don’t want to build three beams this month, seven the next, and one the month after. We have a master production schedule to smooth load over the course of a twelve month period. In a facility our size, the main problem in terms of schedule is the queue time of the machine. The less machine operations we have the quicker the product goes – the flow line has helped us reduce the lead time by about 30%.”

Share and share alike

Boeing is a good mentor when it comes to developing a relationship with suppliers and encouraging lean activities for common benefit. Messier- Bugatti-Dowty has dedicated supply chain improvement personnel to carry over best practice and make sure suppliers are aligned with the company’s strategy and understand the requirements.

This is the same practice Boeing adopts in dealing with its own supply chain. Taylor says: “We have Boeing representatives on site regularly, but they don’t get overly involved, as long as we do our job properly. It’s a learning experience, and a new way of working for us, but the benefits are clear.”

Bob Eady, managing director of SIRS Navigation, a small manufacturer employing 24 people that supplies a standby compass to Boeing and other aircraft makers, agrees. “Control on our suppliers is our biggest challenge. We tend to pass on an understanding of the system we work with and the knowledge we have of working with a bigger customer to our suppliers. “But that can be quite difficult, especially with smaller companies and smaller volumes.

But it is important because issues affecting the end product can often be traced back to a small supplier in the chain.”

Boeing represents about 10% of SIRS Navigation’s business. The Kent-based SME is now exclusive supplier of the compass, which becomes useful when directional headings on the aircraft fail – for example in case of lightning strike.

SIRS Navigation has a strong lean programme, which derives from both Boeing requirements for continuous improvement and the need to reduce costs while increasing quality.

Eady explains: “We realised we weren’t getting good yield, and identified the root causes in order to remove rejects. We were also looking at the way we processed the work, at flow, cutting down on unnecessary processes and duplication. From a planning point of view, in the first four months of this year our output was 10% up on the same period last year. And we achieved this with a lower headcount.”

The order book for the 787 is 850 airplanes, of which only six have been delivered. There is no doubt both Boeing and its suppliers will have to work hard and focus heavily on supply chain integration if these orders are to be fulfilled on time.