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747-8F: What went wrong?

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Yesterday's announcement of a fresh delay to Boeing's 747-8 Freighter program wasn't triggered by a single large event but rather the accumulation of small issues that added up to an additional three month slip in first delivery to Cargolux to the fourth quarter of 2010.

"It is more akin to death by a thousand cuts," says one program engineer of the latest delay.

At its heart, the delay was attributable to resource constraints driven by the engineering responsibilities diverted by the 787 program.

"Consequently", the engineer says, "more engineering errors escaped than what could be considered normal."

For example, the leading edge Krueger flaps had to be reworked because they weren't fairing properly.

For those on the assembly floor, "workers are adjusting to building a new airplane. A lot of them have been moved around...so their work lacks continuity which leads to production errors," says the engineer.

747 vice-president and general manager Mohammad 'Mo' Yahyavi said in May, "I have all the resources I need now for both the freighter and the Intercontinental."

Program executives addressed this central question about resource allocation for the 747-8 after the 787 was grounded in late June for the side-of-body fix:
"The 787 will identify the requirements they need to address their challenges, but that won't have an impact on the 747," Todd Zarfos, the vice president of engineering for the jumbo-jet program, said in an interview today. "Over the last two years we've aligned our engineering resource ability to make sure we meet all our commitments."
Despite the planning that was put into effect to avoid such a repeat of previous resource starvation, the 747 again fell victim to the engineering demand of the 787.

747-8I launch customer Lufthansa, whose passenger variant entry into service remains unchanged, expected that a further program delay would result because of the 787 resource shift.

Lufthansa CFO Stephan Gemkow was quoted on June 25th as saying:
"I'm sure again the delay of the 787 will mean that they have to pull in more engineering resources, and that will have even further delays, as a consequence, for the 747-8. I would not be surprised to learn this some weeks or months in the future."
747-8Genx2bhang_560.jpgPrior to yesterday's announcement, RC501, was set to leave the 747 final assembly line for the paint hangar around October 11th, with first flight planned for December 9th.

Of the total number of tasks required to build a 747-8 from structural build up all the way to pre-flight activities, just over 50% had been fully completed at the time the delay was announced, according to company sources.

Of the balance of tasks or "jobs" that have yet to be completed or "sold" many remain "open" or partially completed, paced by engineering changes. As a result, the total level of completion was far above 50%, but the open and unfinished jobs created a critical path bottleneck that has to be overcome before moving forward.

CATIA and the IRON BIRD

Boeing decided against a full systems integration lab (SIL) for the 747-8 derivative aircraft, due to the influence of the legacy systems on the current design. However, because a SIL was unavailable, says a second 747-8 program engineer, many of the system level issues were encountered on the aircraft, rather than being caught in the lab.

In addition, without a universal computer model derived from Dassault Systemes CATIA v5 software, Boeing has found itself "trying to bridge the gap between 1969 and 2009," says a veteran engineer based at one of Boeing's 747-8 suppliers.

For example, the new wing design and enlarged empennage were designed through CATIA v5, while a portion of of the internal fuselage structure and other parts of the aircraft were built using legacy engineering drawings. 

Some parts and their associated engineering drawings, the engineer says, have not changed since the 747-100, which in some instances has led to a loss of tolerance control in some areas.

Any gaps in the structure are typically addressed with structural shims to align and help parts fit together. However, as the resources have been stretched so thin, the engineering for those shims has been slow to take hold, say the engineers.

"The scope of this delay doesn't compare to what the 787 has been going through, but it is still disappointing," says the first engineer. "Boeing and its employees so desperately need something to celebrate right now."

Photo Credit Boeing (mid)

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