The Boeing 787 Dreamliner has come a long way since it was first heralded as a game-changing plane. Around 300 are flying now, but the planes are still sold at a loss. The Boeing Co. has been pushing its employees to find ways to save money on the program, and one engineer is being celebrated for doing it, big-time.
His name is Vedad Mahmulyin, and he is making so crucial a difference for Boeing Commercial Airplanes that the division named him engineer of the year.
At Boeing his work focuses on the stabilizers, the mini-wings on the tail of the plane.
Mahmulyin has been with the Dreamliner since the start, occupying what his union, SPEEA, said is a critically important job as a loads engineer.
Here's the problem that he solved to earn engineer of the year: The latest stretched version of the Dreamliner, the 787-10, was going to be so long that the tail would be too far from the center of the aircraft.
Any change affecting the tail needs two years of lead time. Designing and building new stabilizers would add millions to the cost, but finding another solution would be fraught with peril.
"It’s enormous risk involved," Mahmulyin said in an interview. "If in flight tests somehow this innovation doesn’t come through, or if it’s shown that it doesn’t work as intended, you would literally be two years behind."
Design and supply problems have already cost the 787 program. A report from Barclay’s Capital said Boeing has spent $50 billion on the project, and it has not yet turned a profit on the 787s it produces.
Boeing has begun to acknowledge that the Dreamliner has not gone according to plan. The head of commercial airplanes, Ray Conner, told the Wall Street Journal in April that he didn’t want markets to think the future of Boeing looked like the 787. He said he wants engineers to design for simplicity -- it’s less expensive.
On the 787 line, Mahmulyin knew it would be much cheaper to use the old stabilizers on the new 787. Mahmulyin figured out he could use software to tell the wings and the stabilizers how to fly together, "As opposed to having to produce all new horizontal and vertical stabilizers,” he said.
Next problem: "It was not obvious that something like this would work." So he needed to convince six levels of Boeing management that it would.
"So how do you explain to them that this is safe and it’s going to work out? So it was like, as political as technical," he said.
It took two years, but Mahmulyin said he could never give up. As a 14-year-old fleeing the former Yugoslavia alone, he had learned that every kind of resource was dear: clothing, education, opportunity.
"It’s just in my nature. The refugee life kind of ingrained this into my soul – this kind of efficiency," he said. "I just couldn’t sleep, knowing that there’s multi-, multimillion-dollar savings out there. I just had to pursue it."
Planes with Mahmulyin’s innovation are expected to roll out the doors at Boeing South Carolina in about two years.