What Automakers Can Learn From Boeing’s Culture of Weight Reduction

As President Obama tries to accelerate the development of lightweight autos with a $14.2 million program, auto companies and suppliers can look to Boeing for an example of how to capture the competitive spoils of lightweight design by first building an institutional culture around it.

The Boeing 787 was recently awarded the 2011 Collier Trophy from the U.S. National Aeronautics Association for the year’s greatest aeronautical achievement “with respect to improving the performance, safety, and efficiency of air or space vehicles.”

While past Boeing commercial airliners have also received the award, this most recent acknowledgement of the 50-percent carbon-fiber-composite Dreamliner perhaps signifies the apex of what has often seemed a Sisyphean ascent beset by expensive delays, supply chain coordination problems, and design and manufacturing challenges. Not that it is entirely surprising to Boeing. In undertaking to dramatically reduce the weight of the 787 by composing most of its major structure of composite material, the airframe maker was in effect acknowledging that extraordinary gains in “performance, safety, and efficiency” come with extraordinary risk.

That risk appears to have been worth it, despite the delays and expense: The 787 is the fastest-selling widebody aircraft in aviation history, with nearly 900 aircraft sold to 60 airlines and leasing corporations eager to reap the operational savings associated with a 20-percent gain in fuel efficiency. It was Boeing’s airline customers, after all, who back in 2004 guided the company toward efficiency rather than speed.

Beyond taking a huge—albeit calculated—risk to provide savings to its customers, what did Boeing do to ensure the 787’s success, and what can other mobility providers, such as the automotive industry, glean from the journey?

Perhaps most importantly, Boeing’s achievements in lightweight design are due not just to a willingness to leap to a new design and manufacturing paradigm based on new materials and a global supply chain, but are more fundamentally due to a weight-reduction-focused institutional culture that permeates every step of the design process and every level of the organizational structure. This culture is composed of four key elements:

First, Boeing establishes an overall weight target for each new airplane program it initiates, based on a combination of top-down weight studies examining past airplanes, bottom-up, part-by-part weight accounting, theoretical limits based on material properties, and practical limits based on manufacturing precedent. The target is always aggressive and always challenging, and is broken down and distributed to each area of the airplane so each team owns its portion and strives continuously to meet it.

Secondly, visibility of progress toward the target is provided regularly to senior leaders. “Airplane-Level Studies” provide these leaders with weight and other performance impacts at the “whole-airplane” level so individual teams can never lock themselves away and optimize their system at the expense of the airplane as a whole. Included in these studies is an important metric that establishes the value of a saved pound—i.e. how much marginal cost in fuel and maintenance is associated with weight over the life of the airplane. The cost-benefit tradeoff can then be quickly understood and assessed to determine the net impact of design ideas on an net present value basis.

A third critical element of Boeing’s lightweight institutional culture is a dedicated, cross-functional team whose sole focus is to ensure that weight targets are met, that weight savings ideas receive their due attention and analysis, and that they are evaluated according to the whole-airplane impact.

Finally, company incentives are established to elicit and encourage generation of innovative weight-saving ideas, with a process for upgrading them to official studies if they are of sufficient merit.

The institutional and cultural characteristics that underpin Boeing’s efficient airplanes are applicable to any industry where fuel efficiency represents competitive advantage. Fuel costs have always received more attention in the aviation industry, whose customers are fleet operators with very rational buying behavior, and whose vehicles’ very long lifetimes and high utilization rates ensure that fuel is a significant portion of the total cost of ownership. Aviation mobility providers have thus benefitted from more time to instill a lightweight culture. By contrast, the automotive industry is driven by customers to whom total cost of ownership has historically been nothing more than an academic curiosity.

But that’s starting to change. Increasing fuel prices are moving fuel economy up the priority list for many drivers. A November 2011 Consumer Reports study found that 83 percent of car owners are willing to pay extra in exchange for added fuel economy. Automakers are also beginning to plan for increased fuel economy standards for 2013. These shifting conditions will make lightweight design, and the institutional culture that underpins it, an increasingly important element of competitive advantage for automakers.

Building and organizing a new institutional culture is a relatively low-risk proposition, requiring only careful hiring and training; clear, decisive leadership; and intelligent institutional structuring, but it takes awhile, and aviation has had decades to figure it out. Why not benefit from those decades of trial and error by leapfrogging to aviation’s cultural paradigm in the automotive industry, and why not start now?

Obama’s lightweight materials initiative represents a crucial step toward breaking down the many economic and institutional barriers to competitive, lightweight American autos. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu summed it up best: “By investing in next-generation vehicle materials and components, we are helping …[ensure] American companies remain at the cutting edge of the global auto industry, [improving] the performance of our vehicles while saving families and businesses money at the pump.”

Greg Rucks is a consultant at RMI, where he has worked to develop energy-efficient design solutions for clients in the industrial and automotive sectors. Prior to joining RMI, Greg spent four years working for Boeing on structural optimization and lightweight design for the 787 program.