Critics say Boeing has made similar bold pledges on a digital revolution, with mixed results
In Boeing Co’s factory of the future, immersive 3D engineering designs will be twinned with robots that speak to each other, while mechanics around the world will be linked by $3,500 HoloLens headsets made by Microsoft Corp.
It is a snapshot of an ambitious new Boeing strategy to unify sprawling design, production and airline services operations in a single digital ecosystem in as little as two years.
Critics say Boeing has made similar bold pledges on a digital revolution, with mixed results. The overarching goals of improving quality and safety have taken greater urgency and significance as the company tackles multiple threats, according to insiders.
After the 737 MAX crisis, the planemaker is going to reassert its engineering dominance in 2022, while laying the foundation for a future aircraft program over the next decade – a $15 billion gamble. It wants to prevent future manufacturing problems, like the structural flaws that have hurt its 787 Dreamliner over the past year.
It’s about strengthening engineering, said Greg Hyslop, Boeing’s chief engineer, in his first interview in nearly two years. We are talking about changing the way we work across the entire company. After years of wild market competition, the need to deliver on bulging order books has opened up a new front in Boeing’s war with Europe’s Airbus, this time on the factory floor.
Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury, a former automotive research boss, has pledged to invent new production systems and leverage the power of data to optimize its industrial system.
Boeing’s approach so far has been marked by incremental advances within specific aircraft programs or tooling rather than the systemic overhaul that characterizes Hyslop’s push today.
Automakers like Ford Motor Co and social media companies like Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc shift work and play into an immersive virtual world sometimes called the metaverse, as a result of the simultaneous push by both plane giants.
Like Airbus, Boeing has a holy grail for its next aircraft: to build and link virtual three-dimensional digital twin replicas of the jet and the production system able to run simulations.
The digital mockups are backed by a digital thread that stitches together every piece of information about the aircraft from its infancy – from airline requirements to millions of parts to thousands of pages of certification documents – extending deep into the supply chain.
More than 70% of the quality problems at Boeing are traced back to a design issue, according to Hyslop. Boeing believes that such tools will be the key to bringing a new aircraft from inception to market in as little as four or five years.
Hyslop said that you will get faster, get better communication, and get better responsiveness when issues occur.
When the quality from the supply base is better, when the airplane build goes smoothly, when you minimize re-work, the financial performance will follow that. The skeptics point out technical problems on Boeing’s 777 X mini-jumbo and T- 7 A RedHawk military training jet, developed using digital tools.
Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia said that Boeing has placed too great emphasis on shareholder returns at the expense of engineering dominance and continues to cut R&D spending.
Aboulafia said that by all means. The makers of aircraft parts like Spirit AeroSystems have invested in digital technology. Major planemakers have partnerships with French software maker Dassault Syst mes. But hundreds of smaller suppliers don’t have the capital or human resources to make big leaps.
Many of the markets have been weakened by the MAX and coronaviruses, which followed a decade of price pressure from Boeing or Airbus.
They not only tell us what hardware we can buy, they are now going to specify all that fancy digital junk that goes on top of it? One supply chain executive said.
Boeing has come to realize that digital technology alone is not a panacea. It must come with cultural and organizational changes across the company, industry sources say.
One industry source said that more than 100 engineers were underpinned by the digital transformation that Boeing has hired veteran engineer Linda Hapgood.
Hapgood is best known for turning black- and white paper drawings of the 767 tanker’s wiring bundles into 3 D images, and outfitting mechanics with tablets and HoloLens augmented reality headsets. One insider said the quality of the product has improved by 90%.
In her new job, Hapgood hired engineers who worked on a digital twin for a now-scrapped midmarket airplane known as the NMA.
She draws on lessons learned from the MQ 25 aerial refueling drone and the T- 7 A Red Hawk.
Boeing built the first T- 7 A jets in simulation, following a model-based design. The T- 7 A was brought to market in just 36 months.
The program is grappling with parts shortages, design delays and additional testing requirements.
Boeing has a running start with its 777 X wing factory in Washington state, where the layout and robot optimization was first done digitally. The broader program is still a long way behind schedule, and is hampered by certification challenges.
This is a long game, according to Hyslop. Every effort was focused on addressing part of the problem.