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Boeing’s Flight for Survival

The 7E7 could set new efficiency standards, thanks to lightweight materials, smarter sensors, and a streamlined design process. But can it pull Boeing out of a market nosedive and revitalize struggling airlines?
September 1, 2003

By almost any standard, Boeing’s commercial-jet factory in Everett, WA, is an impressive place. For one thing, it is the world’s most voluminous building-you could fit all of Disneyland plus five hectares of parking in it. And it’s the birthplace of many of the world’s largest commercial jets, including Boeing’s 767, 777, and 747, the legendary 400-plus seat jumbo jet that has dominated much of long-distance air travel over the last three decades. One of the factory’s football-field-sized doors is emblazoned with a giant image of three jets soaring toward a crimson sunset and the inscription “Building the Future of Flight Together.” But on a recent drizzly day, the door was partly opened, revealing that the cavernous hangar, big enough to hold three mid-sized passenger jets, is empty.

Given the slowdown in the commercial-aviation business, the idleness of some sections of the huge aircraft factory is no surprise. But despite the economic doldrums, in an office park just a kilometer away, Boeing engineers are busily designing what they hope will solidify the company’s future as a commercial-jet maker. It’s called the 7E7 Dreamliner, and if all goes to plan, it will be Boeing’s first newly designed commercial jet since the 777 was rolled out in 1995.

At first glance, the 7E7 will be a rather conventional-looking mid-size plane that carries between 200 and 250 passengers. But Boeing says it will burn 20 percent less fuel than today’s similarly sized commercial jets.

What’s more, built of lightweight composites and packed with sophisticated electronic controls and diagnostics, the 7E7 could cheaply and efficiently travel an ocean-hopping 14,800 kilometers, demonstrating the same range and speed as large jets, like the 747. In other words, the 7E7 could get you from Paris to Minneapolis without a stop and, company officials say, do it less expensively than any large commercial jet flying today.

Those numbers could have dramatic implications for air travelers. Relatively small, long-range planes could offer routine flights to far-flung international cities without stops in large hubs. Indeed, Boeing foresees a market for as many as 400 new direct routes between city pairs like Munich and Singapore, Dubai and Taipei, or Athens and Atlanta. Low operating costs and increased scheduling flexibility could help keep ticket prices down and provide a desperately needed boost to the ailing airline industry. In short, Boeing’s engineers and designers are betting the 7E7 is the right plane for the struggling, highly competitive air travel business.

Whether the company’s management agrees, however, remains to be seen. Weighing the need to replenish its aging fleet of commercial jets against the daunting requirement of a multibillion-dollar investment to develop the 7E7, the company’s board of directors is expected to decide whether to go forward in early 2004. If it approves the project-and that remains a huge if-the first planes would be delivered in 2008; if it doesn’t, Boeing’s engineers will have to go back to the drawing board, with the company’s future in the balance. (Boeing is also doing a concept study on a next-generation 747, which would be 5 percent more efficient and slightly larger than the most recent 747s, which rolled out in 1989.)

Indeed, the stakes on the 7E7 could hardly be higher. Industry experts calculate it costs roughly $10 billion to produce a new model of commercial jet. And they estimate the 7E7 program is already consuming half of Boeing’s annual commercial-jet research-and-development budget of $768 million. By Boeing’s own admission, the fate of its entire commercial-jet business might well rest on getting the new plane right. “It’s the future. It really is. It’s a huge deal for us,” says Mark Jenks, Boeing’s director of technology integration for the 7E7 program. “If we get it wrong, it’s the end. And everyone here knows that.”

Aborted Takeoffs

Saving Billions

If Boeing’s Sonic Cruiser was meant to be the Lamborghini of commercial jets, the 7E7 is more like the Honda Civic. Its key selling points are fuel efficiency and low operating costs. For Boeing’s engineers, that means reducing manufacturing and maintenance requirements, as well as fuel use, by whittling weight and deploying technological tricks-such as more adaptable software systems and sensors that automatically and cheaply detect structural problems. The 7E7’s 20 percent fuel efficiency boost will come from a combination of new technologies. Almost half will result from the introduction of next-generation jet engines supplied by players like General Electric, Pratt and Whitney, or Rolls Royce, according to Boeing engineers.

But the other half will come from weight reductions stemming from more widespread use of composite materials, more efficient and lightweight electrical systems that will partially replace bulkier pneumatic ones, and from a tweaked aerodynamic shape that reduces drag.

The last Boeing-designed passenger jet, the 777, used some composites. But Boeing says the 7E7 will be the first commercial aircraft the majority of whose main structure, including its fuselage and wings, will be made of these lightweight, superstrong blends of carbon fibers and epoxy. Composites are about 20 percent lighter than standard aluminum alloys and are more amenable to precise shaping (which reduces the total number of parts and saves manufacturing costs). And though composites generally cost 10 to 100 times more than aluminum to produce, Boeing and its suppliers say they have developed proprietary manufacturing technology that could dramatically narrow that gap. Boeing estimates the increased use of composites will alone account for as much as a 3 percent fuel efficiency boost.

Designers expect to lower operating costs even further through improved automated maintenance systems-in particular, advanced structural-health diagnostics. The disaster that befell an Aloha Airlines Boeing 737 in 1988 is a grisly tale familiar to everyone in the commercial-jet business. Tiny cracks that had formed around aluminum rivets resulted in a chunk of fuselage tearing off at 7,200 meters near the coast of Hawaii, sweeping a flight attendant to her death.

After the tragedy, regular checks of commercial aircraft for signs of structural damage were intensified, increasing safety but adding costly, time-consuming trips to the shop. Inspection methods include pouring colored penetrating fluid over the fuselage to reveal any hairline cracks, and exposing the fuselage to sound waves that send vibrations through its skin (the pattern of reflected vibrations indicates if cracks are present). While effective, such inspections can easily add millions of dollars to maintenance costs over the life of a plane.

To lessen the need for these inspections, Boeing says, the 7E7 will likely be riddled with advanced, networked sensors that automatically and continuously monitor structural health. Already, diagnostic sensors are standard equipment on jet engines (see “If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It,” TR September 2001), where they monitor parameters like temperature, pressure, and emissions. And structural sensors are used in some military jets, where installation cost isn’t as much of an obstacle. But now, “The technology is just starting to come along to the point where we can have monitoring technology on the structure of a commercial jet,” says Jenks, the 7E7 technology integration director.

While Boeing won’t discuss the specific kind of sensors it plans to deploy, recent academic and industry research suggests several possibilities. In one leading approach, a patch of ceramic material affixed to the interior of an aircraft’s skin contracts and expands rapidly, sending out vibrations; a sensor detects the wave pattern that reflects back. New cracks provide new reflection points that show up as changes in this pattern. Whatever type of sensors Boeing chooses, their data will be analyzed by software and warnings of potential problems relayed to pilots and ground crews.

Boeing engineers are also rethinking the entire electrical network of the 7E7, hoping to cut back on the maze of wiring found in commercial aircraft. Onboard computing systems are getting simpler and more integrated, requiring less wiring. And wireless technology will play a role, too, in nonessential electronics like flight attendant call buttons. Whereas the similarly sized 767 has 160 kilometers of wiring, the 7E7 would have only 100 kilometers.

The resulting weight savings is modest-equivalent to about eight adult passengers-but the overall benefits of a new electrical scheme are not. “In addition to saving the weight, it’s that much less you have to design, install, and worry about later on,” reducing costs over the life of the plane, Sinnett says.

Boeing’s engineers also plan to take a high-tech, collaborative approach to the design of the plane. The objective is to manufacture the 7E7’s parts in such precise shapes and with such pristine accuracy that many of them can literally snap together. “We call it our Lego airplane,” jokes Frank Statkus, Boeing’s vice president of technology and processes. The Internet is key to achieving such precision. Boeing teams around the world-potentially at sites in Europe, Japan, Russia, and the U.S.-would co-design the 7E7. Despite their far-flung locations, they would all access the same file on a server. “The design lives in one place, where it used to live in 1,000 places,” says Statkus. Eliminating the need to reconcile many versions of a design means fewer tiny errors when it’s finished. What’s more, the digital file containing the final design will be the same file used by suppliers to fabricate the parts. Previously, a supplier would sometimes “have to digitize our picture to tell his machine how to build it,” Statkus says. “This translation sometimes caused errors.”

Long term, the improved design process means a simpler digital catalogue for managing supply chains, as well as more efficient maintenance procedures for the airlines. And it could considerably simplify the process of designing future versions of the plane. All in all, the savings can be counted in the billions of dollars over the decades-long life of the plane design, for Boeing and the airlines that must maintain the planes, Statkus says.

Betting the Future

In some ways, designers of commercial jets have an impossible task. Though constrained by today’s economic woes and technology limitations, they must think about what passengers and airlines will need and want 50 years from now. After all, the first 747s were delivered in 1970, and new ones are still being built and are expected to last 30 years or more. That means the basic design of a commercial jet, if successful, can persist for upwards of 60 years. “It clearly outlasts all of us,” says Walt Gillette, vice president of engineering and manufacturing for the 7E7. The need to plan for such longevity, he points out, makes designing a new aircraft like designing “a 100-story skyscraper.”

Except no one has to keep building and selling the same model of skyscraper every year for 30 years. That’s where the art of predicting the future comes in-an art that can clearly make or break a jet maker. Boeing essentially bet the company on the 747 in the late 1960s, a gamble that paid off with a world-dominating jumbo jet, a plane perfectly timed to the surging demand for long-haul, affordable air transportation.

But the industry has also seen some Edsel-like design failures and other miscalculations that have crippled entire companies. Lockheed Martin’s L-1011, which made its first flight in 1970, was reliant on a single engine manufacturer, Rolls-Royce-a decision that proved financially disastrous when the then troubled engine maker imposed delays and price increases. Years later, the three-engine L-1011 proved more expensive to operate than newer, competing twin-jet designs, and this contributed greatly to Lockheed Martin’s exiting the commercial-jet market in 1981. Once-powerful McDonnell Douglas failed to develop new models; Boeing bought the company in 1997 and quickly discontinued the MD-80, MD-90, and MD-11 commercial jets.

And then there was the Concorde supersonic-jet program, still the most radical technological gamble in commercial-air-travel history. It was essentially a government project, but even with substantial subsidies from British and French taxpayers, only 14 of the needle-nosed craft ever entered service. Today the surviving members of the fleet are being retired, with no supersonic commercial-jet replacements in anyone’s sights.

Given such recent history, no one at the Boeing factory in Everett has to be reminded how critical it is to get the design of the 7E7 right-or what another market-dominant commercial jet would mean to the company. The sense of urgency around the Everett plant is almost palpable, extending well beyond the empty factory floor behind the hangar door marked “Building the Future of Flight Together.”

Next to the office building where engineers are hashing out the 7E7 design, a sister structure owned by Boeing is vacant and available for lease. During a recent visit to an enormous Boeing machine shop, the only sound other than echoing footsteps was a regular tapping noise-which turned out to be four workers playing Ping-Pong behind a screen of cardboard. It was, clearly, a facility just rearing to go on its next big project.

Gillette, for one, believes he has one more blockbuster plane left in him. He conveys some disappointment that it won’t be the more radical Sonic Cruiser, which would have broken new ground in mainstream commercial air travel. “It was about the value of going fast,” he says. “It’s been 50 years since the industry really addressed the value of extra speed.” But he also quickly acknowledges that the need to be bold must be balanced against economic realities-starting with what the airlines are willing to buy.

In short, the challenge for Boeing designers, says Gillette, is to use technology to make “the business case” for the new plane. Gillette knows it will all come down to whether his team can convey just the right balance of technological wizardry and manufacturing frugality to convince the board to bet the company one more time.

If Gillette and the other engineers at Boeing can win the day, they may well have helped determine how we will all fly for decades to come. And the sound of Ping-Pong balls in Boeing’s cavernous machine shops may be replaced by the snapping together of the 7E7’s parts, as they smoothly come together on a newly bustling manufacturing floor.

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