Thursday, March 15, 2012

Boeing's Italian Mistress

Italian Alps, with Franciacorta vineyardes in the foreground
 Across the top of the Italian boot, from Torino in the west to Trieste in the east, where the Alps meet the plain, runs one of Europe's most prosperous economic engines: Italy's high-tech, high-design, precision manufacturing industry. It's a mind-boggling network of small businesses that line the A4 motorway like an unending strip mall. Further south, the mighty Po river, then farm country punctuated by the jeweled art cities of Parma, Bologia, Ferrara and Ravenna. Then, across the Apennines, the dreamworld of Tuscany and Umbria.

But it's the high-tech manufacturing corridor that's in the news today. Boeing has just announced that the horizontal tail of its 787-9 Dreamliner will be manufactured not in Seattle (where the development work has been going on) but in Italy, at a factory owned by a subsidiary of Italy's giant Finmeccanica known as AleniaAermacchi.

Alenia (a species of skipper butterfly in Latin) already makes the horizontal tails for the 787-8 (the version of the Dreamliner that's currently under construction), but those parts, according to Seattle Times aerospace reporter Dominic Gates, produced "many quality issues and resulted in significant delays to the program."

Still, it appears that all is forgiven. "We try to have more than one source for parts and assemblies," a Boeing spokesman said. "When it is possible, we have a bias toward additional sourcing."

Alenia does more than just piece-work, however. Their latest plane, just released, is a trainer for the Israeli air force.

The company is headquartered Venegono Superiore, a town of 7,000 souls adjoining the northern Italian lake coutry about 35 miles northwest of Milan. One of its advantages: an airstrip that's longer than its main street, the via Finzi. The best restaurant in town is called La Pancia Piena (the full stomach), and specializes in unlimited portions of oversize gnocchi. Those Boeing inspectors, they'll need every foot of runway to get off the ground on their way home.

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