Boeing's (NYSE:BA) 787 Dreamliner has been a mess almost from the day the company began designing the aircraft. It was supposed to be the most technologically-advanced aircraft in the sky, but it's become a headache for engineers, investors, and customers around the world.
Yesterday's announcement that the FAA was grounding all 787 Dreamliners was the latest setback after a string of incidents for Boeing. No one knows when the Dreamliner will be up and running again, or how extensive the damages will be. We may be able to go back years to find the decision that led to all of these problems.
The decision that started it all
Boeing's old way of doing business was to design most of the parts, and do assembly in the U.S., with U.S. manufacturing partners. A total of 95% of the revolutionary 747's parts are designed and made in the U.S., so the company had control over the design process when the aircraft was being designed.
When it began planning the Dreamliner, the company decided to outsource both design and manufacturing to partners around the world. Boeing would act as a project manager and final assembly hub in its giant Washington plant.
The concept is easy enough on the surface. You send out manufacturing specs to suppliers, they come back with bids, and you choose the partners you want to work with. It's a fairly standard process that engineers across the country use when getting parts manufactured for everything from single parts to complex assemblies.
But the challenge that Boeing was facing in building an aircraft is far more complex than your standard outsourcing job. To make matters worse, Boeing outsourced not only manufacturing, but design, as well, for many components, so they were taking parts designed all around the world and trying to assemble them into one system that operates seamlessly. When you add on all of the technology available in the Dreamliner, this becomes a very, very complex problem.
Technology, outsourcing, and massive systems don't mix
When I was working at one of 3M's (NYSE:MMM) manufacturing plants in the mid-2000s, I saw first hand how complex the process could be. Boeing planned to build the 787 with composites that, according to Boeing, make up 50% of the primary structure of the plane, and we were working on products that could make them stick together -- essentially, glue. Working with carbon fiber isn't the same as dealing with aluminum, which is what most planes are made out of, so instead of using rivets and bolts, you have to essentially glue a lot of pieces together. I helped work on the glue, and it was a manufacturing and technological nightmare, even for something so seemingly easy and far down the supply chain.
3M is an expert in tape and glue, so if that was a challenge, just imagine how it must have been working with hundreds of suppliers on new technology for composites, engines, batteries, window, etc. And Boeing was doing all of that while dealing with the challenges inherent with outsourcing.
The trickle down of Boeing's Dreamliner nightmare doesn't stop with Boeing. There's an entire supply chain that will be affected, especially by costs from capacity build-outs that have been delayed in being utilized.
General Electric (NYSE:GE) and Rolls-Royce are making engines for the Dreamliner and, while GE in particular may be a large conglomerate, the Dreamliner is a big program for the company. Delays will be a point of concern going forward.
Spirit AeroSystems (NYSE:SPR) is one of the major suppliers, supplying the front cabin and the leading edge of the wings to Boeing. The stock has been through the ringer in recent years as delays hit the Dreamliner and, today, the prospects don't look any better.
The Dreamliner even goes down the supply chain to commodities like titanium. Titanium Metals, now a subsidiary of Precision Castparts (NYSE:PCP), has built out supply for huge projects like the Dreamliner that were supposed to be the future for titanium, likely a big driver of the acquisition. The old 777 only used 59 tons of titanium, but the Dreamliner's advanced design bumped that up to 130 to 150 tons, and growth should have been imminent. But delays have struck the titanium market, too.
Boeing's problems are widespread and, depending on what the FAA finds, the financial ramifications could be, too.
Foolish bottom line
Boeing clearly made a lot of mistakes to get the Dreamliner to this point; but the biggest may have been the decision to outsource most of the design and manufacturing of such a technologically-advanced aircraft. Right now, that's coming back to bite them.
A deeper look at Boeing
Fool contributor Travis Hoium has no position in any stocks mentioned. You can follow Travis on Twitter at @FlushDrawFool, check out his personal stock holdings or follow his CAPS picks at TMFFlushDraw.
The Motley Fool recommends 3M, Precision Castparts, and Spirit AeroSystems Holdings. The Motley Fool owns shares of General Electric Company. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.