TBT: Boeing Aerostructures Australia: shaping the future

written by Tony Moclair | October 11, 2018

This week’s Throwback Thursday article is from the October 2013 edition of Australian Aviation, where Tony Moclair writes about the innovation and Australian capability at the heart of Boeing Aerostructures Australia.

BAA has adopted automotive robotics for its 787 production processes. (Boeing/Andrew Henshaw)
BAA has adopted automotive robotics for its 787 production processes. (Boeing/Andrew Henshaw)

Some idea of the importance of Australia to Boeing is revealed by the fact that this country hosts the aerospace giant’s largest offshore operation, employing some 3,400 workers.

Locally, Boeing is engaged in training, flightplanning and navigation, spares, logistics, unmanned systems, manufacturing and maintenance, repair and overhaul, which together have generated more than $1 billion in consolidated revenue in the last four years. It is a figure complemented by the sale of commercial and defence aircraft worth approximately $14 billion.

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Boeing supplies and supports a significant number of the RAAF’s frontline platforms from the classic and Super Hornets to the Wedgetail and C-17. In addition, local airlines Qantas and Virgin have between them ordered over 300 Boeing aircraft over the years and indeed it is commercial aircraft that are accounting for a greater than ever share (US$49.1 billion in 2012) of the company’s revenue as orders for commercial passenger aircraft surge.

On the back of this upturn, Boeing is decidedly bullish in its outlook and sees world airlines spending US$4.8 trillion on 35,000 aircraft in the next two decades.

Boeing can only contemplate delivering on its share of these future aircraft orders if its global suppliers do their part by harnessing emergent technologies to produce competitive, technologically advance components.
Among those is Boeing Aerostructures Australia (BAA), whose manufacturing and design facility is in Melbourne’s Fishermans Bend, the historical epicentre of the Australian aerospace industry.

Boeing 787 inboard flaps produced at Boeing Aerostructures Australia in Melbourne. (Tony Moclair)
Boeing 787 inboard flaps produced at Boeing Aerostructures Australia in Melbourne. (Tony Moclair)

Melbourne only

Three years ago, as Boeing Australia’s operation became more intertwined with its global parent’s supply chain, a structural shift saw the consolidation of component fabrication in Australia to Melbourne.

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Fishermans Bend is now the centre of excellence for the entire Boeing Commercial Airplane division in the design, testing and certification of composite control surfaces on its range of airliners, which are produced using advanced robotics and techniques such as carbon fibre resin injection.

Specifically, BAA manufactures ailerons and tabs for the 737, outboard, mid-span and inboard Krueger leading- edge flaps for the 747, and cove lip doors (which seals a hinge gap when the flaperon – a combination of aileron and flap – is used as an aileron), elevators, tabs and whole rudders for the 777.

BAA has continued to export these components for final assembly in the US despite the Australian dollar’s continued strength against the US greenback. To offset the impact of this disadvantage and to remain competitive as a supplier of components to Boeing’s larger supply chain, BAA has undertaken “relentless” productivity gains through cost reduction and innovation.

And it’s in the company’s Melbourne Technology Centre that many of its innovative techniques and practices are born.

“Boeing Aerostructures Australia in Melbourne

Inside Boeing Aerostructures Australia's Fishermans Bend facility. (Tony Moclair)
Inside Boeing Aerostructures Australia’s Fishermans Bend facility. (Tony Moclair)

Boeing Research and Technology- Australia (BR&T-A) has established enduring and mutually beneficial strategic relationships with local research organisations such as the CSIRO, DSTO, Swinburne University, RMIT and the University of Queensland.

Headed by Michael Edwards, whose background includes stints at the CSIRO and Orica, BR&T-A is currently exploring the potential benefits of resin infusion and coupling this technique with light robotics and automation.

Resin infusion, unlike pre-impregnated composites, does not require an autoclave and can instead be cured in ovens, and is capable of producing high-strength composite components with intricate geometries as often used in aerospace.

The manufacturing process involves placing a fibre “layup” in a mould, applying heat during which heated resin is injected. The resin, in a vacuum, is held at constant temperature until it is cured, then removed.

As Edwards explains: “Pre- impregnated composite technology is now part of the furniture. Resin infusion composite is really Australian-centric. We’re the centre of expertise for Boeing. For example, the facility that we’ve invested in here has seen significant upgrades in the last year or so because the group here is the centre of expertise for this technology that has great promise to grow separately. It won’t surprise that we’re looking at applications on the 777-8X and -9X that might be suited to resin technology because of the cost advantages it might have. But ultimately, for us it’s about finding the right application for that technology and not trying to force the technology onto the applications.”

A key enabler of this technology is the use of light robotics, which are already engaged in the production process at Fishermans Bend. Edwards continued: “We’d like to bring in robots for accuracy and for reducing the number of hours it takes to make a component. That said, if you go to automated process, it doesn’t necessarily lead to lower staff. It’s the cost gain and production, and quality gain you get.”

Inside Boeing Aerostructures Australia's Fishermans Bend facility. (Tony Moclair)
Inside Boeing Aerostructures Australia’s Fishermans Bend facility. (Tony Moclair)

Dreamliner

For Boeing’s latest passenger aircraft, the 787 Dreamliner, BAA is charged with the production of the inboard flap, flaperon, outboard flap and aileron under a 20-year, $4 billion deal that sees BAA acknowledged as a Tier 1 supplier.

Individual 787 parts, fabricated from French-made carbon fibre, enter layup for resin infusion before progressing to the oven for curing. Automatically tooled trimming is followed by quality and non-destructive testing. Once passed, parts are then sealed and painted before proceeding to sub-assembly.

In the case of a 787 inboard flap for example, this will involve structure build-up, then drilling by robots programmed with locally-designed software, before final assembly begins. Once completed, the sub-assemblies are painted and dispatched by ship to the US where they will be attached to 787s being produced in Everett, Washington or Charleston, South Carolina. It is the same story for other Dreamliner components produced at Fishermans Bend such as the flaperon, outboard flap and aileron.

Some of these BAA-made trailing edges will return home, joined to the wings of 787s operated by Jetstar.

A 2013 image of the first Jetstar Boeing 787-8 in final assembly. (Jetstar)
A 2013 image of the first Jetstar Boeing 787-8 in final assembly. (Jetstar)

Australian long-term

“Over the next decade or so, two or three billion people will enter the middle class across the Indo-Pacific region and Australia is really well positioned to meet the needs of this middle class and harness that dynamism across the region,” observes Boeing Australia chairman Ian Thomas.

“That will come through the provision of natural resources for industrialisation and urbanisation, and a burgeoning services industry. But we also think it will come through manufacturing – aerospace manufacturing, food processing, medical devices, mining, technology and services and unmanned systems – there’s a great unmanned systems story to be told here in Australia,” Thomas continues.

“Boeing thinks Australia has a strong manufacturing future. And if you look at what’s going on globally there’s a significant revolution in this sector. It’s being driven by the emergent technologies and the application of digital technology. It’s leaner, more agile, smarter and it’s design led, and sits at the heart of innovation. And there’s some new and powerful trends driving that revolution: big data, the industrial internet, low- cost computing, automation, robotics, autonomy, nanotechnology yielding new forms of precision, new ways of collaborating and organisational innovations that are emerging on the back of these other trends.

“There’s also flexible fabrication and mass customisation, a lot of which is driven by 3D printing and adapted manufacturing. In the aerospace sector, it means cheaper parts, which are lighter and faster to make.”

Qantas Group chief executive Alan Joyce, thenJetstar chief executive Jane Hrdlicka and former BAA chief John Duddy inspect a trailing edge bound for Jetstar’s first 787. (Jetstar)
Qantas Group chief executive Alan Joyce, thenJetstar chief executive Jane Hrdlicka and former BAA chief John Duddy inspect a trailing edge bound for Jetstar’s first 787. (Jetstar)

Death of the offset

In response to declining Australian industrial involvement opportunities that were previously integral to large-scale defence procurement programs (particularly with the growth in FMS acquisitions direct from the US), the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO) introduced its Global Supply Chain (GSC) initiative.

This exists as a series of agreements with major defence contractors (such as Boeing) and are designed, according to the DMO, “to outline activities and engagement strategies to increase additional opportunities and scope for Australian industry to compete for work within the supply chains of multinational Defence companies”.

The program funds these global defence giants to establish staff inside their organisations to act as company advocates promoting Australian industry into the business units of the company. This includes seeking and creating opportunities for Australian industry, training the local defence industry in a given multinational company’s purchasing practices, educating Australian industry in the company’s requirements and helping make Australian industry globally competitive. Currently, seven global defence contractors have signed up to the GSC, including Raytheon, Thales, Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems and Finmeccanica. Boeing was the first signatory to the agreement, which was launched in 2009.

Ian Thomas was keen to promote Boeing’s contribution to the scheme.

“We have a significant supply base across the commercial and defence side. There is no offset in Australia and in lieu of that the Defence Department and DMO about four years ago set up its Global Supply Chain initiative and Boeing were the first signatory to that.

“Over the last four years GSC has let just over $500 million worth of contracts to SMEs and of that Boeing has let $284 million worth. Well more than half of the total has accrued as a result of Boeing’s engagement with the supply chain.

“One principal example is Brisbane- based Ferra Engineering. Out of 18,000 companies supplying Boeing, they were our supplier of the year. And they work on the 747 and 787 programs, and they’ve got a nice bit of defence business on a variety of global programs – including the supply of F/A-18 rudder pedal kits. We’re emphatically not engaged in offset, but are engaged with the supply base to help them compete and win onto our global programs. So we’ve got work, in Australia, on V-22, F/A-18, F-15, Chinook, P-8, to name a few.”

Components being produced at BAA end up being installed on the 787 final assembly lines.
Components being produced at BAA end up being installed on the 787 final assembly lines.

The future

If Boeing Australia is to keep open the doors of its expansive manufacturing facilities at Fishermans Bend, which once turned out such classics as Beaufighters, Beauforts, Lincolns and Wirraways, then continued provision of niche capabilities within the broader company is the key.

BAA managing director Michael Dickinson observes: “If we were to try and compete at this facility with standard, built to print standard product, which could be built at 80 or 90 other facilities around the world, with a high labour content, we couldn’t because the value of the labour drives up the cost of the product.

“The difference here is the development of the material system and the process on how to utilise it, design it and take advantage of it. It’s the inherent cost benefit of being able to innovate processes. For example, we used the resin infusion process as opposed to the pre-impregnated process for the 787.

“We have an ability to build that value stream from development to the engineering to the manufacturing and there aren’t many companies around that can do that. Once an innovative process becomes commercialised to the extent it can be migrated out to multiple other companies, essentially it opens up space for us to then take new technologies and bring them up to production. That’s really the skill base we have here.”

The recent softening of the Australian dollar and healthy increases for large commercial aircraft bode well for the 1,300 employees of Boeing’s Fishermans Bend plant. New orders for the best-selling 737 will likely see a sharp rise in locally-made ailerons, which are currently rolling out of the factory at the rate of 42 per month.

However, as always the iron rules of business apply. Even this subsidiary must bid for its work and meet strict price and quality criteria if it is to avoid the fate of so many fellow Australian manufacturers.

That said, Ian Thomas is realistic but enthusiastic about the future of high end, precision component manufacture continuing in Victoria.

“Boeing Aerostructures and BR&T-A have succeeded because they have the ability to innovate in-house, to work with university partners and tap into a collaborative innovative system, to marry research, technology, design and development to manufacturing.

“Our R&D is closely intertwined with our manufacturing. Australia will not be able to compete and win if we’re not creating at least some of the IP and applying it to the manufacturing system. It will be very hard to compete.

“So we’ve been leveraging our supply chain, R&D partners and also ensuring that we’re not doing it in an isolated way. We tie it up and integrate it to the company’s global technology efforts, to our global technology strategy and we really have applied and commercialised research and development to really help the business compete.

“It’s all about taking out cost, improving processes and improving quality.”


VIDEO: A look at Boeing’s operations in Australia from the Austrade YouTube channel. Boeing Australia won the innaugural Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment’s Investment Award at the 2016 Australian Export Awards.

This article originally appeared in the October 2013 edition of Australian Aviation magazine. 

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