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787 Dreamliner teaches Boeing costly lesson on outsourcing

The airliner is billions of dollars over budget and about three years late. Much of the blame belongs to the company's farming out work to suppliers around the nation and in foreign countries.

February 15, 2011|Michael Hiltzik
  • Boeing employees work on a 787 Dreamliner at the company's factory in Everett, Washington.
Boeing employees work on a 787 Dreamliner at the company's factory… (Stephen Brashear / Getty…)

The biggest mistake people make when talking about the outsourcing of U.S. jobs by U.S. companies is to treat it as a moral issue.

Sure, it's immoral to abandon your loyal American workers in search of cheap labor overseas. But the real problem with outsourcing, if you don't think it through, is that it can wreck your business and cost you a bundle.

Case in point: Boeing Co. and its 787 Dreamliner.

The next-generation airliner is billions of dollars over budget and about three years late; the first paying passengers won't be boarding until this fall, if then. Some of the delay stems from the plane's advances in design, engineering and material, which made it harder to build. A two-month machinists strike in 2008 didn't help.

But much of the blame belongs to the company's quantum leap in farming out the design and manufacture of crucial components to suppliers around the nation and in foreign countries such as Italy, Sweden, China, and South Korea. Boeing's dream was to save money. The reality is that it would have been cheaper to keep a lot of this work in-house.

The 787 has more foreign-made content — 30% — than any other Boeing plane, according to the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace, the union representing Boeing engineers. That compares with just over 5% in the company's workhorse 747 airliner.

Boeing's goal, it seems, was to convert its storied aircraft factory near Seattle to a mere assembly plant, bolting together modules designed and produced elsewhere as though from kits.

The drawbacks of this approach emerged early. Some of the pieces manufactured by far-flung suppliers didn't fit together. Some subcontractors couldn't meet their output quotas, creating huge production logjams when critical parts weren't available in the necessary sequence.

Rather than follow its old model of providing parts subcontractors with detailed blueprints created at home, Boeing gave suppliers less detailed specifications and required them to create their own blueprints.

Some then farmed out their engineering to their own subcontractors, Mike Bair, the former head of the 787 program, said at a meeting of business leaders in Washington state in 2007. That further reduced Boeing's ability to supervise design and manufacture. At least one major supplier didn't even have an engineering department when it won its contract, according to an analysis of the 787 by the European consortium Airbus, Boeing's top global competitor.

Boeing executives now admit that the company's aggressive outsourcing put it in partnership with suppliers that weren't up to the job. They say Boeing didn't recognize that sending so much work abroad would demand more intensive management from the home plant, not less.

"We gave work to people that had never really done this kind of technology before, and then we didn't provide the oversight that was necessary," Jim Albaugh, the company's commercial aviation chief, told business students at Seattle University last month. "In hindsight, we spent a lot more money in trying to recover than we ever would have spent if we tried to keep many of the key technologies closer to Boeing. The pendulum swung too far."

Some critics trace Boeing's extreme appetite for outsourcing to the regimes of Harry Stonecipher and Alan Mulally.

Stonecipher became Boeing's president and later chief executive after its 1997 merger with McDonnell- Douglas, where he had been CEO. Mulally took over the commercial aviation group the following year and is now CEO of Ford. The merged company appeared to prize short-term profits over the development of its engineering expertise, and began to view outsourcing too myopically as a cost-saving process.

That's not to say that outsourcing never makes sense — it's a good way to make use of the precision skills of specialty manufacturers, which would be costly to duplicate. But Boeing's experience shows that it's folly to think that every dollar spent on outsourcing means a cost savings on the finished product.

Boeing can't say it wasn't warned. As early as 2001, L.J. Hart-Smith, a Boeing senior technical fellow, produced a prescient analysis projecting that excessive outsourcing would raise Boeing's costs and steer profits to its subcontractors.

Among the least profitable jobs in aircraft manufacturing, he pointed out, is final assembly — the job Boeing proposed to retain. But its subcontractors would benefit from free technical assistance from Boeing if they ran into problems, and would hang on to the highly profitable business of producing spare parts over the decades-long life of the aircraft. Their work would be almost risk-free, Hart-Smith observed, because if they ran into really insuperable problems they would simply be bought out by Boeing.

What do you know? In 2009, Boeing spent about $1 billion in cash and credit to take over the underperforming fuselage manufacturing plant of Vought Aircraft Industries, which had contributed to the years of delays.

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