Thursday, December 23, 2010

Has Boeing learned its lesson? Probably not

Last month, an electrical fire on board a Boeing 787 Dreamliner marked yet another of the ongoing problems with the aircraft, which can be directly tied to Boeing’s foolish effort to “globalize” its construction to keep costs down and make the sales success of the plane a “global” concern. Boeing, which received $3 billion in tax breaks just to keep a few thousand jobs tied to the plane local, now sees delays and cost overruns because of the incompetence of, and quibbling between, its disparate partners, and the shortsightedness of Boeing executives to see how such a failure would make adequate quality control virtually impossible on such a complicated project. Fifteen different companies in seven different countries were subcontracted to “build” the plane. Subcontractors in Japan warned Boeing that they were being asked to build parts that were not of correct specifications, while in Italy, parts seemed to be built according to an every man for himself “specification.”

A shortage of fasteners, fasteners not riveted flush, flight guidance software incomplete, wings not safely fastened to the fuselage, problems with the Rolls-Royce engine, condensation inside the plane, and the electrical fire only compounded the endless shortages and delays of delivery of parts from all over the globe. It is as if Boeing is trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with pieces from multiple puzzles. Assemblers in Everett are nevertheless busy—with 100,000 mistakes requiring rework on 20 planes that are nowhere near ready to fly. The result of this incompetence is that the first delivery of the first plane—originally slated for May, 2008, is now guestimated for possibly next summer—three years and $12 billion behind schedule. Boeing has had to write-off the first three Dreamliners “completed” as unsellable, and Air India is demanding $1 billion in write-offs due to the delay in deliveries.

The question now is, has Boeing learned anything from this catastrophe? The correct lesson is that keeping construction, quality control and jobs in-country actually saves money; an airplane isn’t a T-shirt and sneakers made in a sweat shop on the cheap. One suspects, however, that this is just a speed-bump in the quest for unfettered “globalism.”

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