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.
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.