March 2006 
Volume 04, Issue 10 
Cover Story

Wings around the world

A collaborative business model is helping the Boeing 787 Dreamliner revolutionize commercial airplanes. Here's a look at how this model played out in the development of the wing box


The Boeing 787 Dreamliner team is preparing the first full-scale outboard section of the wing box for its first major test. Yet the team's progress in handling this component of the new airplane is not the only success story. In addition to designing and building the first commercial airliner composite wing, Boeing and its partners have come together to create a new business model based on collaboration.

The 787, scheduled to enter service in 2008, is revolutionary in many ways. The airplane will bring big-jet range to the mid-size airplane market. It will provide airlines with unmatched fuel efficiency, which is good for airlines and the environment. Airlines will enjoy more cargo revenue capacity, and passengers will experience more comfort and convenience in the cabin.

Another revolutionary aspect: the way the airplane is designed and built. The business model—which emphasizes collaboration to even higher degrees than in previous Commercial Airplanes jetliner programs—has been used throughout the design and development phase and is now being used in the build phase. It marks a change in the way Boeing does business: It's helping Boeing ensure it gets the best ideas and uses the best abilities from throughout the industry to design and create a product that's like none other—and do it faster and more efficiently than ever.

The 787 wing box development epitomizes this new way of business. The development process involves members of not just Boeing but also of Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which will build the 787 wing box. As members of the Boeing–MHI team have learned, there are challenges in teaming representatives of different companies, let alone in integrating different cultural mindsets. But the progress and the product reflect the value of collaboration—and the benefits of the best minds working together.

The first all-composite wing

On a visit to the wing box test area at Boeing's Seattle Developmental Center—or a trip to MHI's new fabrication and assembly factory nearing completion in Nagoya, Japan—it's easy to understand the complexity that goes into developing a commercial aircraft wing. Component test articles for the main wing box—the main structural piece of the wing and the area that carries the airplane's fuel—have been designed and built jointly by Boeing and MHI at locations throughout the Puget Sound region of Washington state and all over Japan. Major tests have been conducted in Nagoya, Nagasaki, Kobe and several other locations in Japan. Preparing for the first major test of this full-scale section in Seattle has been a major project. Boeing has processes and tools in place to ensure the program meets all export compliance rules and regulations.

But something of this scale and complexity doesn't happen overnight.

For the past few years, engineers from all over the world have called the Puget Sound area their home away from home as the international 787 team works through the development of the new airplane. Many of the best minds in the business have been working nonstop to make the concepts behind the world's most efficient and advanced airplane a reality.

"With the old business model, our partners didn't join the development team until the detailed design phase," said Jess Trostle, leader of the 787 Section 12 Wing Life Cycle Product Team (LCPT). "This new model brings the partners in much earlier in the process; they've been working with us since the conceptual phase."

In the past few months, many of those engineers have made the journey back home to begin detailed design of the Dreamliner. Working together globally takes coordination and sometimes, compromise. With the new business model, the 787 wing team, and the rest of the 787 program, coordinates with partners around the world—which means conference calls and meetings take place at all hours.

The wing box test article measures roughly 18 feet (5.5 meters) at its widest point and is half the length, approximately 50 feet (15.2 meters), of the entire production wing. The wing for the 787 will be the largest composite structure ever built for a commercial aircraft and could transform the commercial airplane industry.

"As an engineer for the 787, I enjoy the many various technical challenges of the composite wing structure, which has really different material characteristics from existing aluminum wing structures," said Takashi Fujimoto, 787 MHI program manager, Civil Aircraft Engineering.

In the coming months, Boeing and MHI will be conducting major tests on the wing box and other wing sections. These tests are conducted to validate the analysis tools and methods used to design the airplane. Tests range from small-scale coupon testing—tests on samples less than 12 inches long used to determine material properties for design purposes—to full-article testing. The wing box is a large-scale test article and an important component of the overall certification plan for the airplane.

In addition to the tests' primary purpose, the wing team made the decision to prove out all the new manufacturing processes and technologies that will be used in the production of the airplane.

As with any major project, there were challenges in getting to this point. The primary one was the simultaneous use of new materials, development of new engineering tools and processes, and the development of new manufacturing technologies, processes and tooling to produce the product economically. These processes were done in parallel, creating a significant integration challenge. The team also had to complete configuration of the airplane, start the design of airplane No. 1, and make production build decisions—all needed to reduce flow time for product development and introduction into service.

"By bringing in engineers from our partners and suppliers this early in the game we've been able to use the strengths of each party and combine talents from all over the world," said Mark Jenks, 787 LCPT leader for the Wing/Empennage/Gear Team. "There are cultural differences that each partner brings with them. Merging these cultures has been a real strength for the program."

The development of the wing's huge composite spars is one example of leveraging the cultural strengths of both partners.

True to the American cultural archetype, the Boeing engineers were anxious to get started immediately. During a meeting in Jenks' office, the Boeing engineers proposed building a full-scale test tool to lay up sample spars to learn how the material behaved. The Japanese engineers questioned that game plan. "Why would you want to start building parts before getting a fundamental understanding of the underlying process variables," several of them asked. "And even if you did, how could you possibly build the necessary consensus to commit the significant resources that would be required?"

Eventually the Boeing engineers prevailed and proceeded to delight their MHI counterparts by obtaining funding, building tools and fabricating half a dozen full-scale spar segments within three months. The initial spars had obvious problems, as the MHI team members speculated would happen, but the teams learned from these quick screening tests. MHI's internationally recognized composites expert, Kaz Ogasawara, recommended conducting a set of carefully designed sub-scale experiments to fully characterize the important process variables.

The Boeing team agreed. The spars were quickly cut up, and defect data was recorded and analyzed. After careful analysis, the root causes of the major quality problems were quickly identified, and targeted solutions were proposed, implemented and validated on two more spar segments. In record time, the combined team had optimized a complex manufacturing process by combining their differing approaches to problem solving.

"Individually, neither team would have arrived at the solution nearly as quickly and, in fact, may never have developed as robust a design," Jenks said.

Building the relationship

From the start, the Boeing team made a conscious effort to focus on understanding and, ultimately, leveraging the cultural differences of their MHI teammates. From program leadership meetings with cultural anthropologist G. Clotaire Rapaille, who has developed theories based on deep-seeded "cultural archetypes," to seminars with Pat Gercik, an expert on Japan at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to special Japanese language courses organized at the local community college, the team tried early on to get comfortable with the realities of working cross-culturally.

Understanding—and caring, in good times and bad

The Boeing–Mitsubishi Heavy Industries team's efforts to understand and appreciate each other's cultures came through after a tragic event early in 2005. One of the key MHI engineers, Hiroshi Saito, a young man whose outgoing personality and enthusiasm had endeared him to the entire Boeing and MHI team, was killed in a hang gliding accident east of Seattle.

Saito's family members requested to visit his work place, per Japanese custom, when they traveled to Seattle for his funeral. His family was escorted to his work area with his many Japanese and American friends in attendance. The testimonials delivered by members of both the Boeing and MHI teams seemed, perhaps more than any other event, to capture the significance of this new way of working together.

"In that moment, I think it became clear to everyone that our international partnership is about so much more than technology," said Mark Jenks, a 787 Life Cycle Product Team Leader. "These ties across cultures make us stronger and richer than I think we yet understand."

—Adam Morgan

"Only after a couple of years did we really develop the kind of mutually respectful and trusting relationships necessary to pull off a joint project of this magnitude," Jenks said. Developing trust is something which happens over time, and it's an absolutely critical dynamic in the working-together paradigm of the Japanese.

"In a process like this, there are going to be some normal tensions upfront," said Dan Smith, 787 Wing Test and Technology LCPT leader. "We took some time early in the process to build the trust between Boeing and MHI."

Among the activities team members used to do this was the "beer/sake challenge"—designed to get both sides more engaged in the process and bring the two cultures closer together to form one team with a unified plan. MHI needed to gain process experience with the new materials and part designs to support near-term tooling, production equipment and design/producibility decisions. MHI estimated it would take six months to gather information. The only problem was the information was needed in six weeks.

Smith issued a challenge to MHI and Boeing team members that it could be done in six weeks. The Boeing team took the responsibility of rapidly developing the prototype equipment and the MHI team took the responsibility of building the tooling to support the testing. The challenge was for each team to complete their portion of the task within the allotted six weeks. If the MHI team met the schedule and the Boeing team did not, the Boeing team would buy sake for MHI. If the Boeing team was successful and the MHI team was not, MHI would buy beer.

"Both teams met the goal, which usually seemed to happen, so it was beer and sake for everyone," said Smith with a smile.

"These team-building challenges built a great amount of trust between us and MHI. Boeing gained a deeper appreciation of MHI talents, and I think MHI trusts us in things that three years ago they would have said were impossible," added Smith.

A look into the future

Over the next few weeks, the 787 wing team will join the center box and the outboard wing box together for major testing. After the join, the team will initiate a 12-to-16-month test program on the wing structure. During the test program, the team will condition, static and fatigue the test article, with the final test being a static ultimate test designed to break the box.

"We feel this advanced and global 'Working Together' environment will open doors for establishing favorable relations and cooperation through exchanging each other's thoughts, cultures and past experiences," said MHI's Fujimoto.

"Working under the new business model on the 787 has been just as exciting for me as working with and introducing the advanced technology of the new airplane," added Jenks.

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