Engineering Innovation - The 787 Takes Flight
December 20, 2009
December 15, 2009 saw the long-awaited, and much anticipated, inaugural flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. There has been, and continues to be, a swirl of opinions flying around the 787 and specifically around the schedule delays that have beset the program. This first flight must have come as a relief to many people as it provided such a tangible demonstration of progress towards the aircraft’s entry into service.
I myself was pleased to follow the news of the initial flight as I have been peripherally involved in the 787 program from back in the days when it was still referred to as the 7E7 (e.g., five years ago). This involvement was admittedly minor, if not microscopic when placed into the context of a program of this size, but it does however provide at last some measure of perspective on the magnitude of Boeing’s accomplishment. What I can say about the experience is that it has instilled in me an almost boundless respect for the engineers at Boeing and very specifically for those with whom I have dealt.
One aspect of the 787 program which I do not believe has received adequate attention, or appreciation, is the fact that it has pursued what I would call “multi-dimensional innovation”. What the schedule hawks, and especially those whose interest does not extend beyond short-term stock market performance, fail to appreciate is that engineering an aircraft like the 787, and integrating the almost innumerable ways in which it represents a leap forward in airliner design, is nothing like pushing a stuffed toy out the door for a designated holiday season. While setting out, working to, and adapting realistic schedules remains a continuously challenging process, I personally cannot imagine how so many innovations could be accomplished and their features integrated into a seamless whole without there being some schedule turbulence. Unlike the critical schedule hawks, every time I hear about a schedule adjustment for the 787 program I knew that my colleagues at Boeing were in fact re-doubling their efforts to make sure that the resulting aircraft was as good, and as safe, as it could be. Personally, I take great comfort as a regular airline passenger in knowing that the Boeing engineers are such fiends for detail (and this is to put it mildly) and are so dedicated to the craft of, as it was once explained to me, “making good airplanes”.
I have on occasion been known to declare that a business should be judged by the quality of its customers and following this logic I have allowed myself to feel a small flash of satisfaction, even pride, in being associated as a specialist supplier to Boeing and to the 787 program. Customers like Boeing invariably make the companies and individuals who support them better. And in an economy where the primary function of many institutions seems little other than the distribution of inflated bonuses, it is that much more heartening to imagine yourself assisting, in however a small way, an organization like Boeing who not only builds things but engineers innovations on such a grand scale and marshals those innovations together to deliver such magnificent products. I take my hat off to them all.
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