Science & Technology
BOEING KNOCKS DOWN THE WALL BETWEEN THE DREAMERS AND THE DOERS
'Have you hugged an engineer today?" That's the question on Garnet W. Hizzey's door at Boeing Co.'s 777 airplane operation in Renton, Wash. Since Hizzey is the plane's production-engineering manager, that might sound like a forlorn plaint. Actually, it's more a vivid reminder that sweeping changes are afoot.
In big companies, at least, design engineers and manufacturing types hardly ever mix. And until now, Boeing was like most other companies, sorting the dreamers into one fiefdom and the doers into another, with an invisible barrier between. Relations between the two focused on griping about "the other side of the wall" -- usually when designers cooked up something that manufacturing considered too expensive or hard to make. With the 777, though, "we won't have the luxury of whining," says Hizzey. His job is to make the widebody transport, which is scheduled to take its maiden flight in mid-1994, easier and cheaper to manufacture than its predecessors. To do that, his 400 engineers are working side by side with designers, an approach called concurrent engineering (CE).
COSTLY CHANGES. Hizzey and his crew are at the core of a massive makeover of the way companies develop products. Until recently, designers had a pretty free hand. They would toss the design over the wall to production, then keep on making improvements. Each change, no matter how trivial, typically cost upwards of $10,000. Yet it hasn't been unusual for a complex product to be modified hundreds of times, sometimes even early in production. With the 777, Boeing wants to get the details right before production starts -- and weed out all those avoidable costs.
That requires juggling just a few pieces, such as the 132,500 engineered parts in every plane, plus three million rivets, screws, and other fasteners. Boeing can do this because of a huge computer system that runs a European-developed solids-modeling program called Catia. It lets engineers iron out bugs on video screens, where fixes are cheap, instead of on expensive life-size models called mock-ups. The new process brings together representatives from design, production, and Boeing's outside suppliers, with regular input from airline customers, maintenance, and finance. "The magic is, you can simulate assembly before you actually do it," says Alan R. Mulally, vice-president in charge of 777 design. Boeing hopes this will save as much as 20% of the 777's estimated $4 billion to $5 billion development cost.
PAPERLESS PLANE. It should also help the world's No. 1 planemaker keep up with
the competition. Paperless design was pioneered by such companies as Motorola, Xerox, Digital Equipment, and Ford Motor. In the 1980s, Northrop Corp.'s B-2 stealth bomber was made from scratch without blueprints, a process in which Boeing participated as a subcontractor. McDonnell Douglas Corp. subsequently developed a similar program for jet fighters, which it is now using to develop a commercial helicopter, too. Then, in early October, Airbus Industrie, the government-backed European passenger-jet consortium, rolled out two new products of a four-year paperless-design project: One is Airbus' new long-range jet, the A340; the other is a short-range counterpart, the A330.
The first customer for the 777, United Airlines Inc., ordered 34 planes a year ago, and today, Boeing has more than 7,000 people working on the job. About half are in 238 so-called design-build teams. The engineers are linked through 2,033 computer workstations in Seattle, 484 in Wichita, where Boeing will build the nose, and 70 in Philadelphia -- plus 220 in Japan, where local suppliers are helping design the main body sections.
Integrating the overall aircraft design plus the digital blueprints for the various production processes is a huge number-crunching chore: Boeing had to patch together eight of IBM's biggest mainframes. But this cuts out much of the handwork that slows a project and inflates its cost. For instance, craftspeople used to fashion master models, or plaster duplicates, of every part to help guide suppliers that make molds for them. Now, precise computer data will be zipped electronically to the moldmakers. Only for highly complex assemblies, such as flap mechanisms, will Boeing do mock-ups.
Such advances don't come cheap. Boeing's research-and-development expenses will nearly double this year, to about $1.5 billion, and they could hit $2 billion in 1992. Then, there's the $2.5 billion to build two new plants for the 777, including a major expansion of the Everett (Wash.) factory, already the largest in the world. Boeing figures these front-end investments will be balanced by back-end savings. But the outlays, combined with tepid orders -- only 72 so far for the $120 million plane -- unnerve Wall Street, where Boeing shares have been treading water for a year in the 45-to-50 range. Even top Boeing execs are circumspect. "You have to be concerned when you make that much of a technology leap," says Chairman Frank Shrontz.
Actually, even aside from Boeing's role on the B-2, CE and paperless design aren't entirely new to the company: It used them three years ago for an engine strut on the 767. Errors fell dramatically, and the job was finished ahead of time. So far, that's true for the 777, though some suppliers grumble about computer incompatibilities that force them to start with a paper blueprint and then reenter data into their computers. Despite these glitches, the project is on schedule. Some 25% of the design will be done by March, 1991, and it should be 90% finished by February, 1993 -- just after assembly begins.
EASY FIX. Manufacturing engineers, who wouldn't normally be involved for another year, have already made their mark. For three decades, the skin on Boeing jets has had a bend in it where the top of the wing meets the side of the fuselage. This covers the inside rib of the wing, the structure that attaches the wing to the body. In the assembly process, putting just the right bend in several aluminum body panels that fit side by side has been "like an art form," says Hizzey--difficult, time-consuming, and costly. On the 777, his production engineers suggested redoing the wing-body joint to eliminate the bend. The designers agreed -- and solved 30 years of manufacturing headaches by altering one line on a computer screen.
Each design-build team is assigned a part of the plane, such as tail-fin panels or passenger-entry doors. Major suppliers sit on these teams, too, and the biggest contractors -- Mitsubishi, Fuji, and Kawasaki Heavy Industries -- have real-time tie-ins with Boeing's computers. The teams meet at least every two weeks to review their work with other interested parties, who might range from purchasing officials to airline customers. "Itry to think of these teams aslittle companies," says Stephen R. Johnson, who heads a group of 10 teams designing the wing's trailing edge. "They each have cost targets and weight targets -- and board meetings."
Once the design and manufacturing engineers no longer felt obliged to posture, adds Johnson, they were able to empathize with each other. They even share offices. This has been somewhat traumatic for designers, who now get instant reactions from production engineers. Yet most have bought into the concept. "There were a few agnostics, but they are among the keenest advocates now," says Hizzey.
Designers used to resent it even more when customers put in their two bits. Gordon A. McKinzie, United's 777 program manager, says he spotted rolling eyes when Boeing engineers learned that United and the No. 2 customer, All Nippon Airways Co., would be snooping around. But later, the designers agreed with a United suggestion that the longest wing flap be divided in half to make repairs easier. And they're considering a United request to use more-durable stainless steel bolts and to make door latches so they won't catch fingers as they close. McKinzie says he's amazed at Boeing's candidness: "We feel very privileged to be part of their agony."
Boeing concedes that togetherness has its problems. Some teams lack needed resources or skills, some people were adamantly opposed at the start to sharing data, and some team leaders were inexperienced at running interdepartmental meetings. "Working together is not an esoteric warm and fuzzy thing," says Mulally. "It takes a lot of management and care and nurturing."
Because the process is being refined as it goes on, producing the first 777 will likely take six months more than the usual 48. But if CE brings the project in on schedule and on budget, Boeing will adopt it companywide. So next time, paperless development should be not only cheaper, but smoother and faster, too.BOEING'S INTERNATIONAL PARTNERS FOR THE 777
Outboard wing flaps,
radome (radar housing) $300
AEROSPACE TECHNOLOGIES OF AUSTRALIA,
HAWKER DE HAVILLAND
Rudder, elevators $350
MITSUBISHI, KAWASAKI, FUJI
Fuselage panels and doors, wing center
section, wing ribs, other NA
Flap fairings (covers) $100
CANADA & FRANCE
Landing gears NA
GENERAL ELECTRIC CO. AVIONICS
Primary flight computers $80
Avionics subsystems $500
DATA: BOEING CO.
Dori Jones Yang in Seattle