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Friday, June 9, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A stumble in 787 development

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

Boeing's vital 787 jet program has suffered a setback in development of the pioneering manufacturing process used to build the carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic air-frame.

Boeing recently had to scrap one of the large barrel-shaped fuselage sections of the new airplane made in its East Marginal Way research center after discovering defects had formed inside the carbon-plastic skin.

"You've got some small bubbles in the barrel," Boeing Vice President Mike Bair, head of the 787 program, said in an interview. "It was bad enough we determined the barrel wasn't any good."

Bair insisted the setback will not affect the 787 program schedule, which calls for the first plane to be delivered in early summer 2008.

"We're not a bit concerned about it. All the other work we have done has proven we know how to do these," Bair said. "We are confident we are on track for first flight on schedule and entry into service on schedule."

The news, first reported Wednesday evening in BusinessWeek, was the first sign of trouble in Boeing's new manufacturing process, which is crucial to the success of the 787 and of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

Bair said the failure caused "a little bit of anxiety" because that particular fuselage section was destined to be used to gather data for certification testing.

However, he said, "All these test barrels are just that. We're testing stuff. We're learning. ... That's why you do it: to find problems."

To make up for lost time, Boeing is making two replacement fuselage sections to replace the faulty one and will complete the planned certification tests in parallel "so we can do it twice as fast," Bair said Thursday.

The one-piece fuselage piece that was scrapped — about 20 feet in diameter and 33 feet long — was the ninth prototype section fabricated, and made in mid-April. The previous eight were fine.

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The failure stemmed from a leak in the mold around which resin-soaked carbon fiber tape is wrapped in the initial stage of fabrication. The one that failed was made using a different drumlike mold, called a mandrel, adjusted in a bid to gain some improvements.

The mandrel is designed to take the precise shape of the inside of the airplane fuselage. Computer-controlled robot arms build up strips of carbon-fiber tape in layers across its outer surface, then the entire tool is baked to hardness in a high-pressure oven called an autoclave.

After baking, the mandrel is collapsed and removed to leave a rigid plastic fuselage section, much lighter than a conventional aluminum one.

The innovative engineering of the mandrel's design is a carefully guarded secret.

Mandrels used to create the large one-piece plastic fuselage sections can be made either from heavy steel, weighing as much as 150,000 pounds, or from a carbon-fiber plastic composite material similar to that of the airframe itself.

A composite mandrel is less durable but weighs just one-quarter of the steel version.

Five of the nine 787 fuselage barrels made so far have been built on composite mandrels. According to one supplier, Boeing has been encouraging its partners to switch to the lighter material.

The mandrel that failed was made by Janicki Industries, a high-tech company in Sedro-Woolley. With 450 employees, the Skagit County company specializes in making tooling out of composite materials. It's a key player in the 787 manufacturing plan.

As an experiment with Boeing to try to improve durability, Janicki had changed the resin mix in the composite material it used to make the mandrel that failed.

"It didn't work," said John Janicki, company vice president and co-founder. "We probably stuck our neck out a little too far."

In addition, said Bair, some final remachining of that mandrel, made necessary when Boeing changed the engineering specifications for the fuselage, had left it too thin in some areas.

Bair said Boeing will go back to the former resin mix, which had produced "very good and very consistent" results, and will make the two replacement barrels on a Janicki mandrel with that proven formula.

"We're completely confident we've got the processes we need in order to put this airplane into production," Bair said.

Janicki said his engineers have moved on to making mandrels for actual production work, which are required to be more robust that those used for the test parts.

"On the one that failed, we learned some stuff and made modifications. Now they are bullet-proof," said Janicki.

"I'm not seeing any kind of panic [at Boeing]," he said. "You can't do development work and not run into problems. But there are no fundamental problems."

In the interview Thursday, Bair dismissed assertions in the BusinessWeek story of serious problems with the nose sections and concern over the airplane's weight.

He rejected the statement that Boeing deemed "unacceptable" the first two 787 nose-and-cockpit sections, made in Wichita by Spirit Aerosystems.

He said the first Wichita-built section "turned out far better than we thought it would."

"We weren't trying to make production parts," he said. "If we had been trying to make flight-worthy parts, those two would not have been acceptable. But we never expected they would be."

He said Spirit and other first-tier partners are preparing to produce their first "pre-production" sections, which will be flight-quality hardware, though they won't go on a plane.

While Bair admitted the 787 is still about 2.5 percent over its target weight, he said that target includes an extra safety margin beyond what's needed to meet the fuel-efficiency promises made to airlines.

"We will meet all the commitments we made to our customers, even if [the weight] doesn't get any better," Bair said.

Asked about reports from sources close to the 787 engineering team in Everett that suppliers are not delivering on schedule, Bair said that's "just the nature of the beast," given that the schedule was set as the program launched and is designed to be aggressive.

"We put [the schedule] in place two years ago," he said.

"All the moving pieces on the schedule are not exactly where we'd hoped they'd be, but when we look at the whole program, there's nothing there that says we won't deliver the airplane when we're supposed to."

Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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