The news from the July 4th weekend included a significant supply chain focused news item, which the Wall Street Journal characterized as “upsetting a finely tuned supply chain.”

A 19 car Montana Rail Link train carrying major airplane component assemblies bound for Boeing’s final assembly facilities in the state of Washington derailed near Rivulet Montana.   According to media reports, the train was carrying complete 737 aircraft fuselages, fuselage panels for the 777 aircraft and wing parts for the 747 aircraft. Photos of the accident feature 3 complete 737 fuselage bodies that slid down an embankment and into the Clark Fork River, and reports indicate a fourth fuselage may have been torn apart during the derailment.

Most of these components originated from Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita Kansas, Beoeing’s prime airframe supplier. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Boeing contracts with the BNSF Railway to transport these parts from Kansas to Billings Montana, where the Montana Rail Link crews assume transport to Spokane Washington, before switching back to BNSF for the final leg to the Seattle area. These components travel on specialized rail cars developed especially for Boeing’s logistics needs.  Reports indicate that the train was traveling just over 30 miles-per-hour at the time of the derailment which would be an indicator that speed was not a prime factor in the accident. 

Boeing operates its commercial aircraft final assembly operations from a just-in-time flow perspective and supply chain teams are obviously in the process of assessing the situation and any implication of this disruption to ongoing production schedules.

Boeing’s teams have been conditioned to supply chain disruptions. In April of 2012 a series of 97 tornadoes impacted the state of Kansas causing widespread damage, including multiple production facilities of Sprit AeroSystems, including the facility that produces 737 barrel fuselages. Spirit quickly marshalled over 1000 construction workers and was able to resume normal production operations roughly 10 days after that major incident. Readers might recall that in November of 2013, a specially fitted Boeing 747 Dreamlifter cargo plane carrying components parts to Spirit’s Wichita facility landed in the wrong airport. That plane had to be gingerly turned and flown out by a highly specialized crew.

No doubt, Boeing’s supply chain teams will rise to the current disruption challenge.

Bob Ferrari