It’s made in the world’s biggest building, takes only four days to put together and is the first commercial aircraft built from carbon composites, but will the revolutionary new Dreamliner win the battle for our skies?
Tucked away in the upper north-west corner of the U.S., about 30 miles north of Seattle, sits the biggest building in the world, utterly dominating the town of Everett. It’s three-quarters of a mile long and a third of a mile wide. Beneath the concrete floors there are two miles of pedestrian tunnels, while nestling in the five-storey structures that have sprung up inside the place are meeting rooms, offices and cafes. The inhabitants of this strange, vast palace get around on golf buggies and bicycles. It’s so huge that the storm water runoff ponds – a must in Seattle winters – are large enough to float an ocean-going liner, and it has its own fire department.
Yet the most remarkable thing about this place is not the structure itself, nor the town-sized community it plays home to, but what is going on inside it. Under all that roof, beneath the 26 ceiling-mounted cranes and the million light bulbs, 33,000 people are engaged in a multi-billion-dollar gamble on the future of air travel.
Originally designed for the ubiquitous 747, the factory floor at Boeing’s plant in Everett can hold 15 jets in various stages of construction, plus dozens of wings, tails and other body parts. In one bay, four jet liners, with technicians and workers crawling inside, over and around them, stretch out across the building’s width.
The new aircraft being built here is, to the untrained eye, just another passenger jet, with a rounded nose, triangular tail, thin tubular body and elegantly curved wings. If it’s changing the aircraft industry, it’s not doing so visibly. But scratch the surface and you realise that what’s going on at Everett is a revolution in the way passenger aircraft are designed and built.
The aircraft is the Boeing 787 – named, after a public competition, the Dreamliner – and it has a list price of between $150 and $200 million. It’s powered by British-built Rolls-Royce engines (although this is optional) – indeed, 25 per cent of the plane, by value, is made in the UK. The first commercial airliner to be built primarily from carbon composites, it made its maiden flight on a grey, wet December day last year, travelling the short distance from Everett to Boeing Field, an airport to the south of Seattle. But its journey to the skies was a lot longer and more complex than that.
These days, there are only two big players in the passenger airliner manufacturing business, and they are locked in a continuous rivalry. In an industry buffeted by one crisis after another – the economic downturn and this year’s volcanic ash disruptions – the premium now, more than ever before, is on efficiency.
Around the turn of the century, Boeing’s rival, Airbus, began investing in the enormous, double-decker A380, which seats 550 passengers. The main motivation behind it was the idea that it is more economic to carry more passengers per flight, and that having fewer flights reduces staff and fuel costs, as well as the environmental impact. It’s a sound theory – as far as it goes.
Boeing, though, moved in a different direction. Instead of building aircraft so big that they could only operate out of larger hubs – for instance, New York or London – the company would focus on smaller planes that could service a much greater number of airports, and enable airlines to offer direct flights between a wider range of destinations. There were other advantages to thinking smaller. The A380’s size causes delays, as its wake is commensurate with its bulk, and other aircraft have to keep a greater distance from it than from other aircraft. This means that there have to be longer gaps between departures when an A380 is scheduled.
o Boeing decided not to compete directly with the A380 but targeted what it saw as the bigger market – airlines replacing their ageing mid-size aircraft.
Building a new plane is an enormous undertaking and the entire programme is likely to cost Boeing a staggering $45 billion. The design of the 787 required 800,000 hours of processing time on a Cray supercomputer. In an industry where companies have to commit billions to a long-term project without knowing what is around the corner, Boeing stacked the odds against itself by establishing what has been described as the longest and most complicated supply chain in any industry, ever, outsourcing production work worldwide – and began using carbon fibre on an unprecedented scale.
Carbon composite technology has been around for several decades, and has been used extensively in experimental and military aviation since the Eighties. But the 787 is the first passenger airliner to be built primarily from the material: over 70 per cent of the Dreamliner is made from composites. Carbon fibre threads are set in resin, then layers of the material are sandwiched together so that the threads are running in different directions. This creates a material that is lightweight and very strong – at least four times stronger than steel.
A metal aircraft fuselage will typically consist of rectangular panels fastened together with tens of thousands of rivets, but with composites, entire tubular sections of fuselage can be made in one piece – essentially by baking the carbon composites in a giant oven, called an autoclave. A much smaller number of sections can then be fixed together using fewer fasteners.
This has enabled Boeing to re-think the entire build process. Rather than assemble the aircraft’s structure itself before inserting all the wiring, plumbing and other on-board systems, Boeing opted to subcontract entire sections then bring them to Everett for assembly.
‘We’ve been working with partners for 20 years on certain parts of planes,’ explains 787 programme spokeswoman Yvonne Leach.
‘Really, what’s unique is that now the wiring, the systems, the electronics – all that comes in inside the sections. Before, we would’ve been doing all that systems installation.’ As well as saving money, this will eventually result in a build time per aircraft of just four days.
Sections of the aircraft are put together in 50 different places, in 17 American states and ten countries, including the UK. This level of outsourcing required Boeing to create its own fleet of unique transport aircraft. It built four Dreamlifter cargo planes out of older 747s that can fit whole 787 fuselages and wings; these aircraft fly to sites as far away as southern Italy to bring completed sections of 787 back to Everett.\
So there are plenty of links in that supply chain, and it only takes a single weak one to wreak havoc with the entire development programme. During the 787’s development, some sections were arriving late, and some needed additional work. Delays were nearing the two-year mark when the company was forced to suspend work on the aircraft entirely for a few weeks to ensure everyone in the chain caught up.
Delivery to Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA), the first customer, originally slated for May 2008, has slipped to December 2010 – and, after the Dreamliner made its European debut at the Farnborough Air Show in July, Boeing admitted that it’s possible ANA may not get its hands on a 787 until early next year.
But the setbacks could be a blessing for airlines reeling from the recession.
‘The delay is unfortunate,’ says Chris Browne, managing director of Thomson Airways, the first British carrier to order the 787.
‘It was very frustrating, but it hasn’t been tremendously bad news for us. Most airlines do this the wrong way round – they order during the good times and take delivery in the poor times. So when we get it in 2012, let’s hope that the economy is set for an upturn again.’
Much of what is revolutionary in the new Boeing planes will not be seen by passengers, though it is claimed they will feel benefits that will counteract the ill effects of long-distance flights. All airliner cabins are pressurised, but that pressure is generally equivalent to being at 8,000ft above sea level. The 787 cabin will have pressure increased to replicate conditions at 6,000ft: this should improve comfort and help lessen the impact of jet lag.
The relative humidity in the cabin will also be raised, so irritation from dry skin and stinging eyes will lessen. Cabin lighting can be set to gradually change from day to night and back again, helping long-haul passengers acclimatise to their new time zone.
very bit as vital, from the airlines’ perspective, are the host of under-the-hood changes the 787 is bringing to airliner technology. Most of the systems that rely on hydraulics have been replaced by electronically operated equipment. Computers will detect problems and alert ground crews to them automatically, even while the aircraft is in flight: so if a light bulb has blown in the premium economy toilet, the maintenance team at the destination airport will have been told, and the replacement bulb will be ready when the aircraft arrives at the gate.
This will enable faster turnarounds between flights, and ensure airlines are able to minimise delays. When flying through turbulence, software reacts to the buffeting by making rapid and often minuscule adjustments to the aircraft’s control surfaces, smoothing the ride to a degree that would be impossible for a pilot to achieve.
Certainly, those who have already pledged their millions behind the 787 have high hopes.
‘We believe that this aircraft will take our customers further, faster, cheaper and in greater comfort than any other aircraft that is out there today,’ claims Browne.
‘When you fly on it you’ll get less jet lag, you’ll arrive feeling more refreshed, and you should have a smoother ride.’
Inside Boeing’s Customer Experience Centre a few miles to the south of Seattle, there’s a full-size mock-up of the interior of a 787. The first thing that hits you is the sense of space. You enter the aircraft beneath a surprisingly high, dome-like ceiling; lit with a wash of blue light, and with its outsize windows, it has the feel of an upmarket hotel lobby.
Boeing believes that we’ll enjoy flights more if we genuinely think of it as flying, not just as several cramped hours to be endured between embarkation and destination.
‘Flying is this thing that humans have been fascinated by for as long as anybody can remember. Yet when we take people flying on our airplanes today, we really don’t do anything to remind them that they’re taking part in an experience we actually think is miraculous,’ explains Colleen Rainbolt, regional director of Boeing’s Passenger Satisfaction department in Seattle.
This is the purpose behind that domed hallway on the 787, and the reason why the interior colour scheme of the Dreamliner is predominantly blue.
Although developed for the 787, the concept has worked so well that Boeing has gone back to the rest of its product line and started fitting 747s and 737s with this new interior. It’s called ‘Sky’.
In another bid to stay ahead of the competition Boeing now offers airlines the chance to select the bits and pieces they want to put inside it, out of a range of third-party options they’ve approved (rather than, as at present, each customer airline having to select and source its own cabin fixtures and fittings, then supply them to Boeing, which installs them in the aircraft).
In the Dreamliner Gallery near to the Everett factory there are rooms dedicated to seats and galley equipment, to lighting options and in-flight entertainment systems, eight different types of interior plastic wall sections, different options of toilets, ‘mood boards’ to inspire colour schemes appropriate to each airline’s brand orientation, and a room full of fabric samples.
Bringing the interior design under one roof doesn’t just save money, it saves time – time that will enable Boeing to quickly ramp up 787 production. By 2013, Boeing plans to be delivering ten 787s every month. There are four aircraft on the line at any one time: each 787 is moved forward as it progresses through the build process and, when complete, the huge factory door is opened and the finished plane taxis out, across Boeing’s private bridge over the four-lane highway outside, and onto the adjacent airport.
It has been over five years since Boeing made its first 787 sale, when ANA ordered 55 of the aircraft. That remains the largest single order, followed by Qantas (50) and Air Canada (37). As Live went to press, Boeing had taken 847 orders for the Dreamliner, worth nearly $150 billion, which makes the 787 the most successful new aircraft launch in Boeing’s 94-year history.
Boeing and Airbus both know they have taken a gamble: but both are also hedging their bets. Boeing is refreshing its 40-year-old 747, though sales of the new version have been modest and mainly in the cargo, rather than passenger, variant; Airbus has designed the 787-sized, primarily composite A350 as a direct response to the Dreamliner, and although it hasn’t flown yet, has secured over 500 orders.
At Farnborough, Airbus staff got their first look at the Dreamliner, and the company’s CEO, Tom Enders, admitted it will be ‘a very good aeroplane’ (adding, of course, that he thought that ‘ours will be better’).
Just about the only point on which the two companies disagree is their appraisal of the commercial aircraft market, with Airbus contending that the next 20 years will see demand for more than twice as many A380-sized aircraft than Boeing believes will be bought. On such perceptions do companies succeed or fail. Only time will tell which of these business adversaries has managed to better predict the future.
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