Crowdsourcing the Boeing 787

Boeing is a master of designing aircraft and outsourcing their manufacture. But for its latest creation, the 787, Boeing chose to crowdsource in the design stage, shaving a year off the process. Should Boeing crowdsource its core competency?

Introduction

Boeing is the second largest commercial aircraft manufacturer in the world. The company’s latest marquis product is the 787 Dreamliner, a widebody jet boasting leading edge size, range and fuel efficiency.  As of 2016, Boeing delivered 500 Dreamliner airplanes, making the jet the fastest in history to hit that mark. The backlog for the aircraft stood at 700 orders as of 2016. [1] However, the program has its issues. Production, initially stalled by production and flight testing problems, is currently below planned capacity and profitability lags that of legacy Boeing programs like the 737.

The jury is still out on whether the 787 program is truly a success. But one thing is generally accepted, the 787 is a design marvel. Boeing poured $32 billion in developing the model. [2] Crowdsourcing contributed to the development of this game-changing plane. Let’s consider how Boeing managed the process and discuss whether crowdsourcing makes sense for Boeing long-term.

How did Boeing use crowdsourcing in designing the 787?

Historically, Boeing tightly controlled the development and design process, employing thousands of engineers and spending between $3.0 billion and $5.0 billion in R&D annually. [1] It outsourced manufacturing to thousands of suppliers, and the majority were build-to-print companies. In other words, Boeing drew up the plans and suppliers executed. Boeing only allowed some tier-1 suppliers’ engineers to collaborate on certain late-stage designing, but it still tightly guarded its crown jewels, such as the wings. When it came to the Dreamliner, this process underwent a shake up.

Boeing opened up the development of the Dreamliner to engineers from 100 different companies, including materials and manufacturing suppliers. Early in the process, Boeing offered “design, modeling, and simulation tools in reach of collaborative teams of all sizes.” It used collaboration software and real-time online applications to allow designs to be compiled and tested. Engineers from different companies can see and edit each other’s work. [3] Boeing had to manage competing suppliers, egos, quality control and messaging of the Dreamliner vision.

The process illustrates a successful experiment in a sort of crowdsourcing of aircraft design. The development process was a year shorter than what Boeing was able to achieve alone. In the end, suppliers designed more than 35% of the Dreamliner. Japanese companies even had a big hand in designing the coveted wings. [4]

A Boeing spokesperson told CBS News that “It would be arrogant to think that all of the best ideas and best technologies exist within the walls of Boeing… There’s no way we’d go back to more traditional methods.” [3]

 

What role should crowdsourcing play in Boeing’s future?

Boeing has since helped fund crowdsourcing tools for manufacturing, partnering with UI Labs’ Digital Manufacturing Design and Innovation (DMDI) Institute as well as with industry players like Lockheed Martin and GE. DMDI Institute’s product, DMC, is described as Git for manufacturing. The product allows “designs to be “compiled” and tested like software projects before being prototyped in the physical world.” [5]

Where does increased crowdsourcing of design and engineering leave Boeing in the future? The company has slowly outsourced manufacturing over the decades and concentrated on designing and engineering. It may seem unintuitive for the company to then turn around and outsource even those capabilities. But I think that’s exactly what Boeing needs to do to remain competitive and to unlock the greatest level of creativity. It also allows it to reduce its engineering workforce needs over time, perhaps achieving a more ‘human capital light’ model. I would argue that this isn’t a shedding of Boeing’s core competency. Rather, I believe Boeing’s true competitive strength is in managing complex projects. It is equipped to navigate complex supply chains, regulatory frameworks, etc. Crowdsourcing aircraft designs won’t diminish that; it’ll only require more of it and bolster its competitive advantage.

Sources

[1] The Boeing Company 2016 Annual Report and 10-K

[2] Wikipedia Article on the 787 Dreamliner

[3] CBS News Article

[4] Seattle Times Article 

[5] ArsTechnica Report

Previous:

Quirky: Why the Crowdsourcing Platform Failed and its Broader Learnings for the Open Innovation Movement

Next:

Quora – Capturing the World’s Knowledge

Student comments on Crowdsourcing the Boeing 787

  1. Afaf, this was fascinating – great post! Do you know if Airbus is planning to utilize similar methods on future design processes (can they even, due to their structure)? Or have they already? I also wonder if the lack of commercial success / early teething issues will hamper future adoption of strategies like this, but it seems, to your point, like a really interesting direction for the company to move.

    1. Thanks, Will! It looks like Airbus experimented with crowdsourcing for their new interiors, dubbed Airspace, which incorporated passenger feedback online (unveiled in 2016, will go into planes in 2017). So that’s maybe an even more “pure” form of crowdsourcing. But I’m not sure if they’ve done it with (more serious) things like airframe and wing design. In any case, I’m also curious to see if Boeing continues this move in its next moonshot project!

  2. My first reaction after reading the beginning of this post was that crowdsourcing design was a bad idea since it could be seen as giving away their competitive advantage, but I think your perspective is very interesting. If their strength really is in managing complex processes then I think this could be a huge step towards lowering the costs of airplanes. However, I’m still skeptical given the post-launch issues that the Dreamliner encountered (batteries that caught fire, etc). I don’t know if the cause was directly or indirectly related to the design process but I think it’s worth Boeing taking pause to consider the downstream implications of a shorter, more dispersed design process.

Leave a comment