Boeing: Process Improvement And Program Cost Management
While most literature on additive manufacturing and aircraft manufacturers has focused on the impact the former will have on the weight of the aircrafts produced using 3D printing and the subsequent gain in energy efficiency, there is much to be said about the impact it could have on how the industry manages process improvement.
Managing process improvement is core to the profitability of the industry and to Boeing in particular. A typical aircraft program line involves a heavy upfront tooling and setup cost, followed by a complex network of suppliers and assembly lines. Boeing typically expects that substantial process improvement learning will occur early in the course of a multi-decade program. As a result, the unit cost of the first units produced is dramatically higher than it is with later units. Without sharp and meaningful improvement in process over the course of the production program, project profitability would remain evasive. Expectedly, this involves a great deal of predictive budgeting on behalf of Boeing and it is precisely its reliance on, and vulnerability to, this lengthy forecasting that has led to a growing disconnect between cost forecasts and realized costs. The latest and perhaps greatest of such programs is the 787 program which faced massive cost overruns.[1, 2]
Effective Process improvement is therefore central to the aircraft manufacturing model and additive manufacturing can potentially overhaul how Boeing and its competitors approach this issue. A Boeing manufactured aircraft involves what is perhaps the most complex network of suppliers and subassemblies. In fact, this complexity is a key driver of the process inefficiencies early in the life of a program. Additive manufacturing is expected to allow for Boeing to consolidate many of these processes under its direct control by reducing the number of parts as well as making redundant many of the virtues of specialized subassemblies. Case and point, GE has recently certified an engine that is 30% additive while reducing the number of parts needed from 855 to 12!  This simplification then consolidation will expectedly reduce the space for and reliance on process improvement learning, thereby making aircrafts production programs more stable and predictable from a cost perspective over time. By ‘flattening’ the improvement curve – bringing the unit cost of the earlier units closer to that of later ones – additive manufacturing would have a profound impact on Boeings business model.
Product Development: Cycle Time Reduction Through Rapid Prototyping
Another feature that marks the aircraft manufacturing process is the lengthy product development cycle for new aircraft. Typically, this can run from four to eight years. Be it by reengineering existing product frameworks or by designing wholly new ones, Boeing is constantly trying to stay a step ahead of its competitors on this front. In fact, a short product development cycle time is a critical core competency that Boeing needs to maintain and improve on if it is to remain relevant in the aviation market. “Getting to market earlier means that the company will have more opportunities to dominate a particular market segment before a competitor can react.”
Additive manufacturing can have a dramatic impact on the product development cycle time by making it quick, easy and cheap to iterate, experiment with and modify different component designs. Consequently, this also gives Boeing the flexibility of offering its customers incremental product improvements that do not require a fundamental retooling or redesign of the assembly process.
How Boeing Is Currently Responding
Boeing has been an early adopter of additive manufacturing, beginning with its satellite and space programs. It has also increasingly utilized the technology for its flight programs to the tune of nearly 1000 distinct parts.  Furthermore, it plans to produce part of the new 777X folding wing using 3D printing (breaking the Guinness world record for largest 3D printed object). 
What Should Boeing Do
Boeing would do well to look at additive manufacturing from a strategic perspective beyond just a narrow tactical one. While the benefits of using additive manufacturing on a case by case basis for complex, lightweight and customized parts are obvious and direct, it is the strategic value of reducing Boeing’s reliance on realizing a steep process improvement curve that is most promising. This would mean, that beyond a case by case cost-benefit analysis, Boeing should aim to radically reimagine its assembly process to create a sustainable edge over its competitors. This would have the added benefit of making redundant Boing’s need to use the controversial method of program accounting. [7, 8] Moreover, with the advantage inherent in reducing the product development cycle time, Boeing stands to reap great gains from a considered adoption of additive manufacturing.
To what extent would special materials used in aircraft limit the systemic adoption of 3D printing?
 James Allworth, “The 787’s Problems Run Deeper Than Outsourcing.” The Harvard Business Review, January 30 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/01/the-787s-problems-run-deeper-t, accessed November 2018.
 Dominic Gates, “Will 787 program ever show an overall profit? Analysts grow more skeptical,” The Seattle Times, October 17, 2015,https://www.seattletimes.com/business/boeing-aerospace/will-787-program-ever-show-an-overall-profit-analysts-grow-more-skeptical/, accessed November 2018.
 A. Brown. “Chain reaction: Why additive manufacturing is about to transform the supply chain,”Mechanical Engineering 140, no. 10, October 2018: 30–35.
 NASA, Development Cycle Time Simulation for Civil Aircraft, https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/29f5/d06c43530f7b52973b95178ab413c18cc6b8.pdf, accessed November 2018.
 Boeing, 3D printing done right, Applying additive manufacturing in integrated mechanical designs, https://www.boeing.com/features/innovation-quarterly/nov2017/feature-thought-leadership-3d-printing.page, November 2018.
 Trevor Mogg, “Boeing’s new 3D-printed tool for making wings is so big it set a world record,” Digital Trends, August 30, 2016, https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/3d-printing-world-record, accessed November 2018.
 Jon Ostrower and Doug Cameron, “Boeing Shares Fall on Accounting Probe Report,” The Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2016, https://www.wsj.com/articles/boeing-shares-fall-on-probe-report-1455215511, accessed November 2018.
 David Ingram and Dena Aubin, “Boeing Uses an Accounting Method that Others Have Left Behind,” Reuters, February 12, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-boeing-probe-accounting-idUSKCN0VL2K0, accessed March 2017.