For Boeing, it's finally time to test-fly the 787 Dreamliner

The Wall Street Journal reports that on Tuesday, Boeing (BA) plans to test-fly its 787 Dreamliner. The $166 million, 250- to 330-seat passenger aircraft with 865 orders and an estimated $150.6 billion backlog has been delayed six times over the last two years. While I hope Boeing succeeds, the causes of the previous delays raise questions about whether the 787's technical problems have really been solved.

Can Boeing really pull it off this time? In a word, yes. The test flight is supposed to last four or five hours, so there's no way for the company to bluff through it. And given the enormous embarrassment that Boeing has suffered from previous missed deadlines, I'm confident that the 787 will fly as long as the weather is acceptable on Tuesday.

It appears that the 787's biggest technical problem -- the risk of detachment between the wing and the fuselage -- has been fixed well enough for the test flight. According to the Journal, Boeing claims that its analysis of the results of another test confirmed that "the fix made to the area where the wing meets the fuselage could satisfactorily handle the stresses of flight."

Boeing has paid a steep financial price for the delays. It reported a $1.6 billion third-quarter loss this year and took a $2.5 billion third-quarter charge directly related to the Dreamliner's issues, according to the Journal. And it has also lost orders for the plane -- roughly 45 -- since the 910-order peak in 2008.

Unbearable Pressures

As I wrote in my book about Boeing, You Can't Order Change, two strategic choices the company made when it started the 787 program lie at the core of the plane's technical problems. First, Boeing decided to outsource 60% of the design and manufacturing of the aircraft to external suppliers. Previously, Boeing had outsourced aspects of manufacturing, but not design.

This change put more pressure on Boeing's suppliers than many of them could bear. And Boeing failed to anticipate how its suppliers would react; in many cases, their response to problems was apparently to tell Boeing what it wanted to hear without solving them. In retrospect, it's clear that Boeing shouldn't have outsourced so much unless it was willing to ride herd on its suppliers far more closely.

Second, Boeing decided to make 50% of the 787 out of composite materials -- basically layers of carbon fiber -- the behavior of which under flight stresses is difficult for engineers to predict. As I've posted about previously, it was the use of these composite materials that led to the issues where the wing and fuselage meet, as well as the so-called "skin wrinkling" on the fuselage. In addition, I have received reports of problems with the 787's environmental control system and electrical system.

The lead-up to Tuesday feels like the end of a Batman episode. Will the 787 actually fly as scheduled? If it does, will it complete the test without a major incident? If the 787 survives the test flight, will the engineers find that the fixes they made actually withstood the test conditions? Will new technical problems surface?

With the 787 accounting for 59% of Boeing's backlog of orders, investors should stay tuned next week for the answers.

Peter Cohan is amanagement consultant, Babson professor and author of eight books including, You Can't Order Change. Follow him on Twitter. He has no financial interest in the securities mentioned.

Meet Peter Cohan at The World Money Show Orlando, Feb. 3-6, 2010, at The Gaylord Palms Resort.
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