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April 18, 2024
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The conventional wisdom from the 1960s through early 2000s that when Boeing or Airbus announces a new airplane, you can expect entry into service 48 months later no longer holds true.  We’ve seen significant delays for A380, 787, A400M and 747-8. Now, despite major lessons having been learned, additional, albeit smaller delays for A350XWB have been announced and we believe the first flight for the Bombardier CSeries will see a delay from December into the first quarter.

These delays occur despite longer development periods and additional slack in their schedules aimed at accommodating the “unknowns” that crop up in development.  What’s changed in the industry that is causing these delays, and will OEMs ever get “back on schedule” of delivering new technology aircraft on time?

Each of the new technology airliners under development had different reasons for delays, with one common thread — the complexities of supply chain integration and ensuring that multiple independent business entities were all pulling in the same direction at the same time.  All it takes is the failure of one part, or one fastener, and an aircraft can’t fly.  But aircraft have always had thousands of parts from a variety of suppliers. Why can’t the industry handle it today, especially since we have better communications than we’ve ever had? Companies share CATIA files across the Internet and we have e-mail and instant messaging. We should know much faster when we have a problem than in the 1960s, when communication relied on long distance calls, couriers, express mail and snail mail.

The New Realities of the Industry
Many delays relate to the management of complexity and the management of global supply chains, coordinating everything to come together at the right time.  In the old days, before the concept of offsets required OEMs to manufacture components in backwater locations to provide local content for aircraft, everything was done centrally, under the watchful eye of a management team that translated the drawings from engineering into metallic structures.  Today, an engineer in Seattle, Toulouse, Montreal or San Jose de Campos may design a structure using CATIA that will be produced by someone who speaks a different language, in a different culture, half a world away.

If that isn’t enough of an issue, add to that the complexities of using new materials, with new regimes for testing, new manufacturing processes, and the associated learning curves that come with each.  While the engineering software for analyzing strength of materials has advanced markedly, the designs being produced have often become more difficult to manufacture.  As a result, one of the lessons learned from earlier delays is to build manufacturing mock-ups to determine whether the designed concocted by engineers can readily be build on the assembly line without the need to hire contortionists to fasten components together.  Both A350 and CSeries benefit from such mock-ups, which will allow optimization of manufacturing processes and hopefully help move more quickly down learning curves.

Has the Industry Learned from Prior Failures?
Let’s examine some of the reasons programs have and are running late, and how the lessons that have been learned are currently being applied to new models.

The Airbus A380 story is now well known — as one part of the company upgraded to CATIA V while the other part was still using CATIA IV, and software incompatibility resulted in the massive bundles of wires on these aircraft to be a few millimeters short, resulting in excessive labor to rework the problems and long program delays.  It seems that everyone has learned this lesson, and today software version control is an essential element for every OEM and their suppliers – you must use this version of the software and not change during the development of the project, with every software update coordinated globally at the same time.

Boeing suffered multiple issues with its 787, ranging from tolerances of fuselage sections that didn’t fit well to a shortage of fasteners in the supply chain.  Boeing’s problems primarily flowed from the lack of experience in managing an international supply chain, compounded by the issues related to manufacturing learning curves with new technology composite primary structures.  The results were tremendous rework, and multiple delays to the program that cost it the strategic advantage it would have obtained if its planned Y1 new narrow-body development had followed an on-time 787 program.  Instead, it was forced to compromise with the Max to compete with the Airbus neo, costing it an opportunity to leapfrog Airbus technologically and gain market leadership.

Boeing has learned how to manage an international supply chain, which Airbus has known for years based on its structure, and Bombardier from its international supply chain for business jets and turboprops.  But the issues illustrated at Boeing caused each to beef up their program management efforts to ensure those issues wouldn’t occur with A350 or CSeries.

Why are We Seeing Delays?
So why are A-350 and, likely, the CSeries at the precipice of additional delays, if we’ve learned from the mismanagement experiences associated with other programs?  The answer is technological complexity and automation.  Software, rather than hardware, has become the major sticking points in the development of new aircraft.

While program management is improving, with iron birds for testing and fully integrated communication systems with international suppliers, two areas remain that continue to cause delays.  One is the learning curve with advanced materials, which is improving over time, and the second is keeping up with the more advanced requirements for software as manufacturing moves to multi-axis automated machinery and aircraft move to integrated digital systems for avionics and flight controls.

Advanced Materials
While both Airbus and Bombardier have experience with high technology materials, the extent of use in the two programs currently under development are higher, and more complex, than earlier programs.  The use of composites for primary structures is much more extensive for A350 than other Airbus products, and the system of skin on structure, while more traditional, requires new techniques and tolerances for composites that are more complex than for simply tail structures used on older programs.  While Bombardier has experience with composite wings from the Global Express, and a facility experienced with resin transfer molding, it is also pioneering Aluminum-Lithium alloys for the fuselage.  While manufacturing techniques are similar to those used for aluminum, the characteristics of Al-Li alloys behave slightly differently, resulting in minor but important changes to the manufacturing process.

The good news is that the industry is working well down the learning curve for advanced composites, just in time for the next generation of composite technologies to be introduced and re-start a new learning curve.  Second generation CRFP materials will be even lighter and stronger than first generation materials, but will introduce new wrinkles for manufacturing.  Keeping up with new technologies, after building from aluminum for many years, is a major cultural change for a manufacturing organization, and despite being dealt with well at both Airbus and Bombardier, can remain a source for delays, albeit not nearly as extensive as with 787.

The latest potential delay for A350 relates to software at a manufacturing plant for wings in Broughton, as this software is needed to control the robot that will drill holes in the wing.  This is an example of how information technology has become a critical path element in aircraft development programs.  Because managing software engineers has often been likened to herding cats, this is the other major area of concern in developing aircraft today.  Problems at Airbus appear to be confined to the manufacturing side rather than the fly-by-wire and flight management systems for the aircraft, as Airbus has considerable experience in this regard.

At Bombardier for the CSeries, concern remains over Parker, which is designing the fly-by-wire system for the aircraft and is rumored to be behind schedule. Margins are already gone in the program. Delays in software development today can result in shutting down an aircraft programs development while a supplier catches up, and ensuring the quality of millions of lines of code can be a difficult task.

We know a software expert from a major aerospace supplier in charge of quality control of software who explained how experts sometimes had difficulty translating comments from Russian and Hindi into English to understand fully how programs worked.  Double-checking everything takes time, and when software for flight critical systems is outsourced internationally, that can be even more difficult to accomplish. We’re glad that they are working diligently to make certain things are right.

The Bottom Line
While the time frame for the development of a new aircraft appears to be stabilizing, it looks like five to six years (If not longer) will be the new normal from launch to entry into service.  Each of the major companies have learned the lessons from failures to communicate and coordinate supply chains, and the importance of providing specifications to suppliers with enough lead time for them to produce their products.  While future programs will be better managed, and build on the collective organizational knowledge to more rapidly execute designs, it appears that software will become the constraining factor in development time lines.  Despite more advanced software tools, it appears that IT and software development have become the major constraints for new program development, and the next area of emphasis for OEMs.

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29 thoughts on “Why New Technology Airliners are Late

  1. An after-the-fact analysis does not excuse manufacturers outright and persistently lying to customers and shareholders on program status and deliverability — in some cases, for years.

  2. hmpf, if you compare the moves of B and A shares my impression is that shareholder do not only like being lied to they require being lied to.
    But the Cult of Quarterlies certainly is one detrimental factor against sane behaviour of corporations.

    The A380 wiring issue was less a problem of lacking compatibility ( the issue was known and “handled” ) then a quality assurance issue in respect to the converting software written to fix this known issue. i.e. the problem is less of a dumb oversight than presented.
    You find the dumb oversight issue with the Software for the A400M Fadec which had to be completely redone with certified tools.

    It would be interesting to know if attributing to dumbness is sufficient in all these cases or with a bit of scraping we could expose little acts of sabotage in some.

  3. Sorry, but I think you are missing probably the biggest reason for all these delays: increasing expectation of improvement (customer, marketing, management, investors) versus actual margin for improvement (engineering).

    In the early days of aviation IT WAS EASY TO IMPROVE ON PREVIOUS DESIGNS, both in terms of new technologies coming along and in terms of large margins of error included in earlier generations: make an aircraft fly with a solid wing, thick landing gear, etc. then spend the next few years producing updates with weight shaved off all over the place. As the weight comes off, so there are more opportunities to reduce weight. As long as testing and regulations show things are still strong enough, this can go on for quite a while.

    Now we’re at a stage where weight-saving opportunities have reduced to almost nothing, new technologies are not so easy to pull out of the hat, and ever-increased regulations means that for every tiny change you make you have to test and simulate and certify for months beforehand.

    But while we engineers slave away gaining the tiniest of improvements, the customers shout “it’s got to be CFRP” (thanks, Boeing!), the salesmen say “of course, and it’ll have -50% CASM and be available next week!” and management turn to us and tell us to do it all by tomorrow.

    And then we wonder why there are slips?! Ha ha ha!

  4. While that is obviously true, a sweeping generalisation is not terribly helpful. We all have heard absolute public statements that, at best, have been “dodgy,” and sometimes transparently untrue, but very often words are chosen carefully and subtly with varying degrees of disingenuousness that the layman might miss. To say “at this moment in time, today, the project remains on track” can remain true until a formal revision of the schedule is published. No doubt a thorough analysis would throw up very many designs — from several decades — that were late getting to the end of the runway, which is especially galling (and publically humiliating, so why do it?) if you have predicted a date for first flight. (Concorde’s maiden flight slipped from February 1968 to March 1969; I don’t know the original forecast EIS date, but it took until January 1976 for operations to begin…) And if one had no target date, how long do you think it could take? Anyway, can’t stop, I’m late for my flight…

  5. Two comments:

    1. The 787 did not have “…longer development periods and additional slack in their schedules.” It had the “conventional” 48 months which was grossly inadequate given the radical change in the way Boeing traditionally built planes.

    2. I can’t believe software writers in India don’t speak English.

  6. And Systems. Electrical and hydraulical systems´ teams seems to be waiting everyone has finished their work to start doing modifications… systems & structure teams working as a unique team is also a good challenge to avoid delays as suffered for instance in the A380.
    Another weak point could be in the future the financial health of the suppliers. With the global crisis, some suppliers with cash problems can impact the whole aircraft. Alenia, Alestis, etc…
    Finally, chinese suppliers capability is also a main issue in the future; too much money but without tech knowhow and with not-always loyal behaviour. Ask Bombardier, or Airbus about that

  7. I suggest a reading on my article

    where I compare development times of old and new projects.

    The cause, in my opinion, is the lack of competence, beam counters taking decisions on engineering (without the minimum knowledge) and companies cutting costs on the wrong places. A cent saved on design (using cheap labor) will cost a dollar or plus on engineering. A cent saved on cheap engineering will cost much more.

  8. “At Bombardier for the CSeries, concern remains over Parker, which is designing the fly-by-wire system for the aircraft and is rumored to be behind schedule. ”

    I keep hearing these rumours but the fact remains that the Parker fly-by-wire system has been commissioned on aircraft 0 test rig and is up and running. Airinsight has video of it moving control sufaces as the plane is in virtual flight. Just what part if it would be behind schedule if Parker has already released it into the test program?

  9. I would like to turn your attention to a book I did not write:
    “The mythical man month” ( Fred Brooks , 1975 )
    though it is already well over 30 years old and originates
    in computer/software design it concisely describes the
    failures of todays big tech projects ( probably because
    so much now is software? not idea 😉

  10. 1. When I learned that Boeing was giving itself 48 months to develop such a radically new design I thought they were out of their mind. And when they said they needed less than eight months to test-flight this all-electric aircraft I thought they were plane stupid (pun intended).

    2. I am sure all the software engineers in India speak English. But they can also have Hindi as their mother tong. To write comments using your mother tong, in your own country, is the most natural thing to do.

  11. Complex heavily engineered products always have surprises. The whole point of an engineering problem solving culture is finding solutions to tough problems. That requires trust, competence and authority to make changes. Project leaders need to make sound decisions, reallocate resources and decide who makes sacrifices.

    The natural business model for this is an integrated design and manufacturing system. Even so, the 777 was successful and delivered on time, even with major foreign partners and high levels of outsourcing and offshoring. That program built teamwork into the business model. Integrated teams built trust early in the program. When problems came up, everyone trusted project leaders to define solutions and keep everyone focused on the success of the program, rather than sub-optimizing around their own piece of the project.

    The recurring complaint on the 787 program was “no one can make a decision.” The 787’s fragmented business model created obstacles and prevented solutions. I’m sure supply chain management works in some industries. It simply cannot solve the problems that always arise on airplane programs.

    Investors objected to the high “coordination costs” of the 777. The 787 business model skipped all those coordination costs. Voila – instant profitability!!!

    Investors may not appreciate the value of up-front coordination, but they are finally coming to understand the cost of years of delay, billions in penalties, really bad learning curves, very unhappy customers and lost market opportunities.

    Boeing once boasted of core competencies in project management and system integration. That was probably true in an integrated design-manufacturing business model.

    Did Boeing learn a lesson on the 787 program? I think it’s more fair to say, “Boeing observed a lesson on the 787 program.”

  12. Ask Bombardier or Airbus you say. But I think it would be premature to ask Airbus or Bombardier at this stage.

    The Chinese work in a totally different time frame. Time frame of mind I should write. It is a different civilization altogether. Airbus, being formed by several old countries of Europe, understands that psychology. Bombardier is a North American company and therefore “has no right” to be as patient as they are. But they started to do business with China many moons ago.

    BBD was selling and manufacturing trains in China a long time before they considered doing the same thing with airplanes. They started by moving production of Q400 key components from Japan to China. They were satisfied with the quality and the price.

    BBD knew early on that the Chinese market was vital for their expansion plans. China is now an important partner on the CSeries. This was a bold move on the part of BBD. It was also a wise move and demonstrates that BBD has vision. Something Boeing no longer has it seems.

  13. The article was probably written before the video was released. Bombardier had hoped that the integrated certification would have been readied to make a proud announcement at Farnborough. Unfortunately the Parker FBW was not ready on time for that.

    Bombardier had to drop “paratroopers” over San Diego as part of their mitigation plan. Bombardier was actually a fitting name for that occasion! 🙂

  14. The recurring complaint on the 787 program was “no one can make a decision” you write. Today we could say the exact same thing about the headquarters in Chicago.

  15. The Dreamliner _is_ a Boeing project. No surprises there.

    Small kid:
    “You write a wish list and Santa will do the rest” 😉

  16. Properly done commentary in sources is written in the project language ( here : english )
    You don’t write comments for your own entertainment but for those others
    reading, checking and fixing your work. Look into the Linux Kernel Sources.

  17. In defense oem’s structurally overpromise and underprice to get go ahead, government financing and orders. After the point of no return real planning, prices etc surface. I have the feeling even the fights afterwards are calculated in, carefully recording all, formally informing stakeholders, to save your .ss in 5 yrs. Making sure government is somehow to blame and pays from the unpersonal heap of public money.

    Maybe this happened in recent civil projects too, convincing willing financers (governments) with great presentations of innovative, environmental friendly, sustainable job and export machines. Who needs nay sayers and pessimists? Stop whining,s Stockholders want to be exited the next quaterly meeting, every quaterly meeting. I was shocked by the upbeat, optimist, loss hiding quaterlies of the last 5 years at Boeing. Then I realized everybody wants it that way, so they get it their show.

  18. An OEM writes: “This document may contain projections, statements and estimates regarding circumstances or events yet to take place. Those projections and estimates are based largely on current expectations, forecasts on future events and financial tendencies that affect the Company’s businesses. Those estimates are subject to risks, uncertainties and suppositions that include, among other: general economic, politic and trade conditions in … those markets where the Company does business; expectations on industry trends; the Company’s investment plans; its capacity to develop and deliver products on the dates previously agreed upon, and existing and future governmental regulations. The words “believe”, “may”, “is able”, “will be able”, “intend”, “continue”, “anticipate”, “expect” and other similar terms are supposed to identify potentialities. The Company does not feel compelled to publish updates nor to revise any estimates due to new information, future events or any other facts. In view of the inherent risks and uncertainties, such estimates, events and circumstances may not take place. The actual results can therefore differ substantially from those previously published as Company expectations.”

  19. Aviation Week is reporting that “all fuselage parts for the [Bombardier]CS100 static test aircraft have now arrived in Montreal, and the wings for the static aircraft are expected in September. The wings for the first flight-test CS100 are due in early October.” Bombardier seems to have done a better job at managing the technical problems and supply chain issues as it is all coming together more or less on schedule. It certainly does not deserve to be lumped in with Boeing and Airbus who were years late on several of their new plane programs.

  20. It looks like they will do the Static before FTV1 after all. I recall reading an article a few months ago saying they were going to put together FTV1 first. Maybe they changed their plans, possibly because the wings are a bit late.

    The Aviation Week article does not specify if Bombardier still maintains that the CS100 will make its first flight before the end of the year.


  21. If you are referring to the Flight Global article from 3 Jul they said then they would build the static-test airframe first. They have a good plan and so far they are on track:

    “Bombardier will soon begin constructing a CSeries final assembly centre designed to build 100 of the type annually from a single production line, initially with seven positions on a partially pulsed line. Final assembly of the first complete static-test airframe is scheduled to be finished in September, followed immediately by assembly of the first flight test airframe FTV-1.

    The next four test aircraft will be produced at one-month intervals, with the first production airframe scheduled for delivery about 12 months after FTV-1 completes its maiden flight. Production will ramp up quickly after entry into service of the 110-seat CS100, with all 138 CSeries jets on order delivered less than three years later. As new orders stretch the CSeries backlog, Bombardier plans to continue increasing the production ramp, first to 100 aircraft a year, then 200 – on a second production line if necessary.”

  22. Normand: “The Aviation Week article does not specify if Bombardier still maintains that the CS100 will make its first flight before the end of the year.”

    Funny you should mention that. Flight Global says that CSeries first flight is still scheduled for the end of this year. More details:

    “Montreal-based airframer Bombardier has finished receiving the fuselage structures for its CSeries static test aircraft this week, says Robert Dewar, CSeries program vice president and general manager.

    Dewar says the static test fuselage is in its final assembly. The next component, the wing, will be coming to Bombardier “shortly,” he says.

    “The fuselage is completely in Montreal now, and actually a number of the other sections are already being joined, and the other ones are in process,” says Dewar.

    Dewar says he is confident that the static test fuselage will be assembled before the end of September, or possibly even before.

    Dewar says that Bombardier is still expecting to receive components for the FTV-1 flight test vehicle in September, and that it has already started to receive “a number of components” for it.

    Dewar says that the flight test vehicle is still planned for a first flight by the end of the 2012.

    The vice president says that Bombardier has a “really good shot” at meeting its entry-into-service date of December 2013 for the CS100, and December of 2014 for the CS300, and says that while the manufacturer does have challenges and risks surrounding that goal, it has been able to mitigate many of them.

    “We don’t have any major schedule issues on the programme, no,” he said.”


  23. When we put the two recent articles together, the one from Aviation Week and the other from Flightglobal, we have a more complete picture of where BBD is with the CSeries. At this stage of development we should have regular updates and frequent new pictures made available to help us see the evolution of the programme.

    I find it unnerving to ear that they are on track, but we no margin left. Even if it’s true, it’s so unreal. Put another way, if it is true it is still unbelievable! 🙂

  24. Interesting assessment of production delays, especially to narrow it down to software and IT. I can’t comment specifically on that conclusion, but I do know that many of the OEMs are looking for fresh software engineers and computer science majors from universities. I’m an Aerospace Engineering major at Michigan, but Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop, and everyone else are looking for more software guys!

  25. Have you read the book I mentioned ? ( “The Mythical Man Month” )

    IMHO delays are not first order linked to IT and software per se.
    But features from IT/Software ( such as wrapping paradigms, complexity and oftentimes lack of clear interfaces / excessive intermeshedness ) have made their way into complex “hardware” projects while management lives in a separate bubble world of scetched maps, that present a carricature of their real world, minded by the flapper layer never to have 1:1 contact to the workers in their hive.

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