Boeing will not launch a new airliner until it is fully satisfied with the digital toolset that it needs to design, manufacture, and service such an aircraft. While these new tools are being used in various defense programs, it will take a couple of years before they will be available to commercial aircraft programs. Boeing not to launch a new airliner until digital toolset is ready.

Group CEO David Calhoun was asked about the prospect of a launch anytime soon of a new airliner during the Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference on June 3. For at least a decade, Boeing has been looking at all kinds of new narrowbody and widebody designs. It came close to launching the New Mid-market Aircraft in 2018, but the unavailability of the right engines and uncertainties over the market size dragged on the discussion. And then the MAX issues happened, followed by those with the 787 and 777X, which consumed all available resources and prevented Boeing from launching an aircraft that could compete with the Airbus A321XLR.

Boeing has said before that the way it wants to design and introduce automated manufacturing of such a new aircraft still needs to mature. Calhoun referred to this as “a true digital friend, that virtually builds it, virtually services it, where the service arm of the company can draw on the original drawings. In the manufacturing facility, you could test the throughput virtually.”

“I am bullish about it because we have done it already in a couple of our defense programs and it is offering enormous advantages to us. It takes cycle time out of the assembly line, but it takes a lot of learning. The number of tests you can run on the design and the performance of the airplane, the manufacturing, and the service, tales out enormous timelines out of that. But we have to develop and mature the tools. We haven’t. We practiced on several of our defense programs, some of which you see, some of which you don’t. It will take at least a couple of years until it is mature enough to implement on the next airplane. When that happens, we will design the next airplane. Besides, we are confident about our program portfolio right now, so why would I rush?”

Engines are not advanced enough

And then there are engines. As Boeing has said before, it wants a new airliner program to benefit from another jump in engine efficiency of around fifteen to twenty percent. “That’s not happening today. There are a lot of good ideas tossed around on the subject of sustainability and how to power airplanes. That timeline is well out there, at least a decade from now. The incremental performance (of new engines) is narrow enough that you aren’t going to bet a new airplane on that.” Calhoun added that a new aircraft will make “a major step” on the autonomy in cockpit systems.

David Calhoun during the Bernstein Conference. (still from video)

Calhoun was also asked if he worries about market share in the competition with Airbus, which is ahead of Boeing. He stressed that this is true of the production rate of the narrowbody program, but not of the delivery rate as Boeing is trying to get its inventory of some 240 earlier-produced and reworked MAX out and is producing 31 aircraft a month. “At this moment in time, it (market share) is less important. We have got to stay focused on getting the aircraft back in the sky incredibly well. One airplane at a time. If I jump to a market share discussion immediately and get to a rate of fifty (per month) next year, the whole system gets cramped down, the supply chain gets tested in a way that they can’t perform. Stability goes down. I am not going to run a public campaign on production rates.”

“What I do know is that our product portfolio across the board competes incredibly well. In the widebody market, when the 787 gets back, I believe we have a strong advantage. (…) The 777X will find its way into the market where it will be on its own. There is a big enough market to fill it, it is not a niche. Interest in the freighter version is very high.” Calhoun acknowledged that the certification of the 777X takes more time as there is a different approach to it since the MAX issues and tries to incorporate all lessons in the big-twin program. “Things have changed, it is harder, it’s tough, but in the end it’s good.”

“We will get back, but I have to be patient, our company has to be patient”, Calhoun said. “We have got to work our way through the supply constraints. Yes, there will be rate increases, but only pull the trigger when the supply chain is ready.”

Different approaches to missing parts

Chief Financial Officer Brian West remarked at another recent investor event that supply issues with a small connector have been affecting the MAX production. The Wall Street Journal and The Seattle Times reported on June 3 that Boeing has changed the way it copes with missing parts. Instead of continuing to move an airframe on the line and install the missing part later, it now prefers to stop working on the aircraft until the part is there. This prevents lots of unfinished aircraft from being parked on the already crowdy premises in Renton and having to do time-consuming, complex, and costly rework later.

Calhoun was unwilling to discuss a specific timeframe when Boeing will ramp up the MAX production rate. As he said earlier, stabilizing the production is priority number one. Only if production is stable month after month, a ramp-up decision will be on the table. Until then, Boeing will be discussing any plans with its suppliers to see if they are ready to go beyond the rate of 31 per month.

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Richard Schuurman
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Active as journalist since 1987, starting with regional newspaper Zwolse Courant. Grand Prix reporter in 1997 at Dutch monthly Formule 1, general reporter Lelystad/Flevoland at De Stentor/Dagblad Flevoland, from 2002 until June 2021 radio/tv reporter/presentor with Omroep Flevoland.
Since mid-2016 freelance aviation journalist, since June 2021 fully dedicated to aviation. Reporter/editor AirInsight since December 2018. Contributor to Airliner World, Piloot & Vliegtuig. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.

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