With the industry abuzz about a delay for the Bombardier CSeries, it may be an appropriate time to revisit why new airplanes can’t seem to be certified on time.
In a piece we published earlier this year, we cited several reasons for delays – including advanced materials and advanced software development issues that are pushing new frontiers. But perhaps the most important aspect of the “new normal” in the industry is the recognition of the changing roles of the OEMs from do-it-yourself operations to systems integrators of a massive supply chain, with hundreds of players at which something can, and increasingly does, go wrong.
Integration OEM and Supplier Responsibility
Specialization in the industry today has become extensive, with some firms clearly recognized as leaders in their fields. Today, rather than the OEM handle all of the development, they are assigning those tasks to suppliers. Folks like Parker Aerospace are handling fly-by-wire programs for Airbus, Boeing and Bombardier, simultaneously. Of course, if everything went according to plan, things would be fine – but a delay on the 787 can cascade through to other programs, as resources and schedules change, and in the end may delay a second program, through no fault of the manufacturer.
As with any other business, a supplier must evaluate its changing situation through program delays, evaluate risks and rewards, and take action to allocate resources and mitigate potential costs, even if they could trigger the possibility of additional delays down the road, and try to subsequently deal with those as the come along. While OEMs are accustomed to the “bet the company” nature of new programs, suppliers are not, but have a more significant impact on program timing than in the past and are increasingly becoming aware of the consequences of delays.
Of course, with increasing specialization, that entire process can be taken down a level or two in the supply chain, and the supplier of a rectifier or nut or bolt used in another component could also be the source of a delay if they experience a problem. We have knowledge of one situation in which a mis-identification of raw materials in China worked itself through the certification process and passed all testing, but didn’t meet specifications, causing a recall of components for a new technology airplane. A clerical error resulting in the wrong grade of aluminum being mislabeled at a supplier three tiers down the supply chain nearly resulted in a program delay, and caused later re-work to replace those parts.
Supply Chain Globalization
Globalization has also become an issue. We’ve seen what happens when a precisely engineered piece of fuselage doesn’t quite fit together in the case of the 787, and global supply chains are difficult to manage. While Airbus and Bombardier have experience in global supply chain management, Boeing’s lack of experience proved a detriment in the 787 program. But even with experience, issues can still emerge. We understand from industry sources that one manufacturer has been forced to utilize backup resources due to an issue with production of components in China, and been forced to implement plan B to now internally manufacture those components until the supplier can meet production volume and quality targets.
In decades past, suppliers were typically local or just around the corner. Today, with suppliers spread across North America, Europe, and Asia, and to a lesser extent Latin America and Australia, coordination becomes a key issue. While computer aided design and high bandwidth communications help, difficult issues can emerge in engineering and troubleshooting that can result in delays if not immediately addressed. It seems that every program has a new issue emerge that will not be repeated in future programs, and that while the A380 and 787 issues were real, they didn’t cover the panoply of possibilities in their entirety.
Supplier Timing and Finances
Of course, suppliers are paid for their components, and build to a schedule. But when a schedule is delayed or modified, and orders that were expected stop coming in the door, finances can become constrained. When finances are constrained, something needs to be cut, and often it may be the head start on the next program, especially if there is enough slack that it shouldn’t matter.
But somehow, in today’s environment, slack seems to disappear at every level of almost every program, and things end up running late. OEM’s often expect suppliers to be able to turn on a dime, ramp up production levels, or conversely ramp them down, and to do this without any impact on schedules or timing.
Unfortunately, the real world is often different, and payments for goods that are scheduled and for which raw materials have been purchased is essential to their livelihood. Delays can be deadly, and often come with side effects later on.
The New Normal
The industry has moved from four to six years with the most recent programs at Airbus, Boeing, and now Bombardier. The good news is that OEMs are recognizing the issues, and working through better ways to manage them. The bad news is that it now takes longer to have new technology aircraft reach the market. Will we ever see a 48 month development timeframe again? The outlook is doubtful.