Boeing 787’s appeal runs more than skin deep

 - December 6, 2006, 12:31 PM

Now that Boeing has settled on a firm design configuration for its 787 Dreamliner, details that until recently looked sketchy have suddenly crystallized just as some of the Middle East’s largest airlines sharpen their focus on fleet additions. From the graceful contours of the cabin to the sleek shape of the airframe, the 787 certainly exudes innovation. But what Boeing hopes will become some of the airplane’s most valuable advances aren’t readily apparent to the naked eye at all.

For example, just last month Boeing revealed plans to introduce radio frequency identification (RFID) “smart labels” on parts of the 787 subject to regular maintenance. Designed to improve configuration control and help airlines cut costs by automatically managing parts maintenance and repair histories, the system, as its name implies, uses radio frequency waves to transfer data between a reader and whatever has a label stuck to it.

The labels contain a microchip and antenna and operate at internationally recognized standard frequencies. Like a bar code, the RFID tag stores data, but the reader doesn’t need a direct view of the label to collect the information. The system also features what Boeing calls a “dynamic” read/write capability. Boeing claims the system will make tracking parts faster and more accurate. Typical Dreamliner parts to use RFID smart labels will include serial-numbered end items such as line replaceable units (LRUs), life-limited parts and on-board emergency equipment.

In May the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said it would accept the use of RFIDs on civil aircraft under “specified” conditions. By early last month Boeing had run two in-service evaluations of passive RFID smart labels on a FedEx MD-10 Freighter. According to the company, the tests showed that passive RFID devices won’t interfere with the safe operation of the airplane.

Modular Cockpit

Apparently regulators harbored some concern about problems RFIDs could cause the 787’s highly sensitive and sophisticated cockpit, displayed for the first time at Boeing’s Everett, Washington plant in late August. Built by Rockwell Collins, the 787’s avionics suite will feature five 12- by 9.1-inch diagonal LCD displays–four across the fight deck and one in the control stand for emulation of the control display units (CDU) and dual LCD head-up displays (HUD). In all, the displays cover 546 sq in– twice the area the system in the 777 covers.

Other noteworthy features include standard dual HUDs, a moving-map display, a vertical situation display and dual electronic flight bag. “One of the ways we are making the 787 a more valuable asset for the airlines and the financiers is by making more features standard,” explained 787 program manager Mike Bair. “In this way, 787s can be more easily moved as needed between fleets.”

The system uses cursor control devices and a multifunction keypad for data entry and retrieval. The 787 flight deck will also feature Rockwell Collins’ newest pilot controls and their associated fly-by-wire systems. The company says the modular design of the pilot controls will simplify installation and maintenance and meet Boeing’s requirements for light weight and a look and feel similar to the Boeing 777, helping to limit pilot transition training to five days.

“This flight deck was designed to provide the best work environment possible for pilots,” said Mike Carriker, chief pilot for the 787 program. “Anyone who has flown a Boeing commercial jetliner will feel right at home in the 787, and also will notice definite improvements.”

Of course, the longer the trip, the more both passengers and crew will appreciate one of the biggest comfort improvements–a 6,000-foot cabin altitude made possible largely by the 787’s composite fuselage. Meanwhile, in both the cockpit and cabin, bigger windows and a modern, airy interior design should make direct flights from the Middle East to points approaching the 787’s 8,500-nm range less torturous, as should Thales’ new TopSeries i-8000, recently chosen by Boeing as the first recommended in-flight entertainment system.

Wireless Laboratory

The i-8000 uses a wireless network to deliver video to each seat on the airplane, and works with the Connexion by Boeing SM broadband system to give passengers access to the Internet and e-mail systems. Paris-based Thales plans to open a new engineering laboratory in California to support testing. Boeing says the package will aid passenger comfort by doing away with electronics boxes and devices under seats. For the airlines, the wireless architecture should cut the amount of time it takes to change seating arrangements from a matter of hours to minutes.

Of course, time means money, and now that the program’s partners have their marching orders, all of them must prove they can dance the logistical ballet choreographed by Boeing at the outset of the program. A huge part of Boeing’s cost control effort centers on the time it takes to put the airplane together and send it out the door for delivery. A planned three-day turnaround will cut the parts inventory at Everett to a small fraction of what’s needed for Boeing’s other models, meaning timing and quality assurance on the part of suppliers becomes more critical than ever.

One of the latest partners to join the team–Korean Air Lines manufacturing division–has agreed to build the airplane’s raked wingtips for prime contractor Vought. It also expects to build the tailcone, wing stringers, the bulkhead wall behind the wheel well and the fairing for the wing flap supports.

Not coincidentally, Korean Air Lines in April placed a firm order for ten 787s and options for 10 more. Launch customer All Nippon Airways expects to take its first 787-8 in 2008, and immediately press its first airplane into service on a route between New York and Tokyo. U.S. launch customer Northwest Airlines plans to inaugurate its first 787 service on the same route.

Meanwhile, Boeing has been trying to find a way to expand production capacity faster than originally planned in an effort to cut delivery lead times stretched by better-than-expected sales. It has already raised its sights somewhat, to seven airplanes a month by mid-2009. But a more ambitious goal of 14 a month by the second quarter of 2011 would demand an even more serious investment in resources and a huge commitment from program partners to stretch their capacity much further and faster than planned.

By October Boeing’s list of “commitments” for some 850 airplanes included claimed firm orders for more than 260. Anyone placing an order today would need to trade positions with other customers to get a delivery before 2011.

Before this week’s Dubai airshow, from the Middle East, only Yemenia has publicly expressed an intention to buy the airplanes–10 in all. In recent weeks, Bahrain-based Gulf Air continued the process of evaluating RFPs for both the 787 and the A350, Airbus’ recently launched answer to the Dreamliner. One of the region’s most coveted prospects–Qatar Airways–has already decided on the A350. However, Boeing reportedly has begun studying longer and heavier versions of the 787-9 in an effort to sway Dubai’s Emirates Airline, which apparently doesn’t think the biggest 787 design meets its capacity needs.

Until now Boeing has shown reluctance to stretch the 787 much beyond the 259-seat -9 for fear of intruding on the market for the 777-200. The company officially froze the design’s configuration in late September, marking the close of the joint development phase of the program and the full-scale start of detailed design. It hopes to settle all outstanding regulatory ambiguities with U.S. and European authorities by the end of the year, allowing it to proceed with an approved certification plan.

If all goes according to schedule, the 223-seat, 8,500-nm-range 787-8 would fly for the first time late next year and enter service in mid-2008. The 296-seat, 3,500-nm-range 787-3 would follow in mid-2010, just a few months ahead of the -9.