Darn Big Pieces on the Darn Big Loader


Big pieces of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner arrive | Seattle Times Newspaper

This is really Kevin Meyer's issue at Evolving Excellence, but I can't resist blogging about this myself.

Boeing is often hailed as a Lean company (or at least they have Lean factories), but here's an illustration what seems like a non-Lean supply chain. Here's a giant 787 wing being unloaded from the giant “Dreamlifter” supply chain transporter that Boeing had to invent (a modified 747) just to move wings from Point A (Italy) to Point B (refueling in Scotland) to Point C (delivery in Washington). I think this link to a custom Google Map will work.

The 42-foot-long frame carrying the tail pieces slid out of the Dreamlifter on a specially built 118-foot-long, 110-ton loading machine. During its development last year the loader was referred to inside Boeing as the “DBL Project,” for Darn Big Loader.

The DBL's laser-guidance system lined up precisely with the holding fixtures that secure the 787 sections inside the Dreamlifter. It took 55 minutes, from the tail cracking open until the tail parts were completely out.

With floodlights illuminating the scene, the hold of the Dreamlifter seemed almost empty at first — so small was the load compared to its capacity.

Laser guidance systems? Load was small compared to the plane? Holy Overprocessing, Batman? I'm sure a lot of engineering goes into this just to make sure the parts aren't damaged during transport, right?

Compare this to the 777 supply chain (I'm waiting at the airport to board a 777 right now):

For the 777, Boeing makes the horizontal tail from the same material in Frederickson, near Tacoma.

Can someone explain why Boeing is building these in Italy instead of Washington? Instead of right next door to the 787 assembly building? Toyota's new factory in San Antonio has plenty of on-site suppliers building parts, like seats, in a true just-in-time fashion an hour or two before being loaded into a car. Now I realize a horizontal tail is more complicated than a car seat, but still, it makes me wonder.

Eventually, believe it or not, the supply chain gets more complicated in the future:

It's expected that once the flow of 787 sections is running smoothly, the tail section will not fly directly to Everett but travel along with Grottaglie-built fuselage sections that must go to Charleston, S.C., for assembly there.

Every time I post about Boeing, I get a testy email from someone saying, “you don't know what you're talking about with aerospace.” That may be true, but I think these are fair questions to raise. When I was at MIT, I saw Jim Womack speak, 1998 or so, about how he was fired by Boeing for complaining too much about their long disjointed supply chains (and that was in context of moving parts from Kansas!).

Who can explain the rationalization or the tradeoff that led to Boeing's supply chain design?

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  1. Anonymous says

    Mark, et al.
    As a lean practitioner within Boeing, I assure you that this decision to fly parts in a JIT environment is saving our company millions of dollars in inventory by avoiding numerous shipsets of parts intransit from our partners around the world, it is testing our capacity for risk too! Selling airplanes is as much a political business as a business process hence we in many cases place work around the world resulting in what can be viewed as extremely inefficient processes. We are all working very hard to drive lean beyond our factories, and have had many successes in our engineering and support organizations. We really are working very hard to be a “lean enterprise” Appreciate your fair reporting and great podcasts!

  2. Roch says

    I believe the business term is OFFSET. A company places work in a specific country as part of a deal to be able to sell their finished product there. I’ve seen this in Pratt & Whitney as well.

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