The 707 and 747 were blockbuster bets that nearly ruined the company before paying off. McDonnell Douglas executives didn’t have the same appetite for gambling.
So the only way the board of directors would sign off on the Dreamliner was to spread the risk among a global chain of suppliers. In December 2003, they agreed to take on half of the estimated $10 billion development cost.
The plan backfired as production problems quickly surfaced.
“I saw total chaos. Boeing bit off more than it could chew,” said Larry Caracciolo, an engineer who spent three years managing 787 supplier quality.
First, there were problems with the molding of the new plastics. Then parts made by different suppliers didn’t fit properly. For instance, the nose-and-cockpit section was out of alignment with the rest of the plane, leaving a 0.3-inch gap.
By giving up control of its supply chain, Boeing had lost the ability to oversee each step of production. Problems sometimes weren’t discovered until the parts came together at its Everett, Wash., plant.
Fixes weren’t easy, and cultures among the suppliers often clashed.
“It seemed like the Italians only worked three days a week. They were always on vacation. And the Japanese, they worked six days a week,” said Jack Al-Kahwati, a former Boeing structural weight engineer.
Even simple conversations between Boeing employees and those from the suppliers working in-house in Everett weren’t so simple. Because of government regulations controlling the export of defense-related technology, any talks with international suppliers had to take place in designated conference rooms. Each country had its own, separate space for conversations.
There were also deep fears, especially among veteran Boeing workers, that “we were giving up all of our trade secrets to the Japanese and that they would be our competition in 10 years,” Al-Kahwati said.
As the project fell further behind schedule, pressure mounted. It became increasingly clear that delivery deadlines wouldn’t be met.
Each success, no matter how small, was celebrated. The first delivery of a new part or the government certification of an engine would lead to a gathering in one of the engineering building atriums. Banners were hung and commemorative cards – like baseball cards – or coins were handed out.
Those working on the plane brought home a constant stream of trinkets: hats, Frisbees, 787 M&Ms, travel mugs, plane-shaped chocolates, laser pointers and lapel pins. Many of the items can now be found for sale on eBay.
“It kept you going because there was this underlying suspicion that we weren’t going to hit these targets that they were setting,” said Matt Henson, who spent 5 1/2 years as an engineer on the project.
The world got its first glimpse of the Dreamliner on July 8, 2007. The date was chosen not because of some production milestone but for public relations value. It was, after all, 7/8/7.
Tom Brokaw served as the master of ceremonies at an event that drew 15,000 people. The crowd was in awe.
It was “beyond experiencing a rock star on stage,” said Dressler, a former Boeing designer. “This thing is so sexy, between the paint job and the lines and the fact that it’s here now and you can touch it.”