March/April 2012
Talk to Me

Leverage technology for manufacturing efficiency

By Bill Lydon, InTech, Chief Editor

Boeing's Dianne Chong, vice president Assembly, Factory, and Support Technology, gave a keynote at the annual ARC World Industry Forum. She observed, "Sometimes the technology will push us, and sometimes we push the technology." Within the context of the newly designed 787 Dreamliner, she discussed influences in Boeing's business, including extreme affordability, breakthrough performance, enduring sustainability, environmental responsibility, and how the team responded with the design. The major takeaways I had from her presentation were to aggressively focus on accomplishing goals by looking for creative solutions applying new technology,  pushing existing technology, and leveraging suppliers.

Creating the 787 Dreamliner was a major achievement for Boeing and required going "outside the box" to stretch beyond the status quo, using a great deal of new technology, manufacturing methods, and production processes. The key to the 787 Dreamliner's exceptional performance is a suite of new technologies developed and applied to produce the airplane. An example of a major change in production is Boeing's use of composite materials, making up 50% of the primary structure of the 787 including the fuselage and wing. So a company who traditionally uses metal in airplanes had to change entire processes and methods to meet goals.

Another innovation was a design-and-build process leveraging 22,000 worldwide supplier partners for the 787. Manufacturing a one-piece fuselage section, for example, has eliminated 1,500 aluminum sheets and 40,000 to 50,000 fasteners. The airplane uses 20% less fuel than today's similarly sized airplanes and travels at speeds similar to today's fastest wide bodies up to Mach 0.85 (approximately 761 miles per hour). Modern systems architecture is at the heart of the 787's design, delivering increased functionality and efficiency in a less complex airplane. For example, the design team incorporated health-monitoring systems that allow the airplane to self-monitor and report maintenance requirements to ground-based computer systems. Passengers will also see improvements, from an interior environment with higher humidity to increased comfort and convenience. Chong explained the aggressive use of new technologies, such as higher use of composite materials, started on a smaller scale in other earlier airplane designs: "Our awareness of what we could do drove the technology as well …" This led to the design team asking questions about the possibility of further exploiting the use of these new technologies leading to the success of the 787.

As automation professionals, do we spend enough time considering the application of new technologies to improve production operations or simply live with the status quo? What if we looked at one new technology every three months and thought about how it might improve our operations? The challenge with adopting new technology is learning about it, identifying applications, and educating people in the company about the value of investing in it. In many cases, there is ultimately some leap of faith that needs to be made. Start small. Boeing, for example, used small percentages of composites on other airplanes, and this provided the experience, confidence, and knowledge.

Are we challenging suppliers as Boeing did, not only to solve problems but to find ways to meet new cost, efficiency, and performance goals? This is a change in perspective to engage creative thinking from suppliers.

Where can we push technology and use it to its fullest? The Boeing 787 health monitoring systems provides real-time information sent back to the airline to schedule service before landing.

Boeing is using new technology, processes, and leveraging partners to compete more effectively. Competition will continue to become more intense and is changing the manufacturing landscape. How will you help your company be more competitive?

Share your thoughts at blydon@isa.org.