Dubai Airshow

Boeing Will Reap Benefits of 787 Technology for a Generation

 - November 12, 2011, 10:50 AM
ANA launched regularly scheduled service with its first 787 on November 1.

In terms of raw dollars and cents, few outside of Boeing would argue against the proposition that the company has and will absorb a serious financial hit from the three years of delays and the unanticipated complications that arose from its attempt at a new approach to supply-chain management with the 787 program. In fact, some financial analysts wonder whether the program will ever recoup it development cost, no matter how many airplanes Boeing eventually sells.

While Boeing executives scoff at such assertions, it seems clear that cost overruns totaled billions of dollars. Still, according to 787 program manager Scott Fancher, the return will manifest itself not only in the profits the Dreamliner manages to yield in the not-so-immediate future, but in the value all the new technologies developed for the 787 bring to future projects.

“This has been a big investment for the Boeing company in many ways,” said Fancher at recent press briefing. “We’ve invested in understanding the latest advances in environmental sensitivity, propulsion, material sciences, systems integration and aerodynamics, and created a wealth of knowledge of these technologies and other capabilities that we’ll be able to apply to the developments we do for the next 30 years. So it’s a great airplane. It’s going to have a long run—twenty or thirty years—and in addition to that these technologies will serve us well for a generation.”

Boeing vice president of 787 services and support Mike Fleming emphasized how the wealth of information available to both the airlines and Boeing will help the manufacturer support the airplane in a profoundly different way. “It will allow us to get ahead of problems before they become a problem,” he said. “The more information you have, the better you’ll be able to service the airplane and lower your operating cost. So I think how that information comes off the airplane and how accessible it is around the world will clearly change the way we support the airplanes, and I think that will have an impact on how we design airplanes in the future.”

Data-centric Architecture

What 787 chief project engineer Mike Sinnett called the airplane’s “data-centric” architecture also allowed engineers to eliminate a huge amount of analog wiring. “Anybody who’s been around airplanes for a long time knows wiring is a bad thing; the less of it you have the better off you are,” said Sinnett. “It’s heavy, it’s expensive and it’s opportunity for error.”

Sinnett estimated that a 747 contains some 150 miles of wiring, the 777-300 carries about 110 miles, while the biggest commercial airplane in the world–the Airbus A380–holds some 328 miles of wiring (and, indeed, this wiring was the source of many of Airbus’ well documented problems with its new widebody). In the 787, Boeing managed to limit the length of wire to between 60 and 70 miles, or about 25 miles less than that in a 767, said Sinnett.

The Dreamliner’s new architecture also carries much more data than has ever flown on an airplane before, he added.

Lower Fuel Burn

Meanwhile, the 787’s more-electric power architecture does away with the pneumatic systems needed to power items such as ice protection, hydraulic pumps, cabin pressurization and air conditioning. The hot, high-pressure air in pneumatics robs the engine of the power it needs for other things, explained Sinnett. “As engines have gotten more efficient and the bypass ratios have increased, the cost of taking that pneumatic energy from the engine has gone up, and it has become a less efficient way of providing power,” he said. “We’ve got the capability to generate about 1.45 megawatts of electrical power on each 787, and in the process, we take less energy from the engines than we ever have before for an airplane of this size.”

That alone has resulted in a fuel-burn reduction of about 3 to 4 percent–what Sinnett called “a staggering number” over the life of a fleet. Future development of the kind of power architecture the 787 uses will translate into a lighter, more efficient power generation and conversion scheme in later airplanes, he said. “We’re at the beginning of something really exciting and it has made a significant difference and improvement in this airplane, and it will only improve over time,” he concluded.

Gust-suppression System

Another major advance involves the airplane’s vertical gust-suppression system, which chief pilot Mike Carriker got to experience first hand during some 1,000 hours of test flying. The 787’s full-authority fly-by-wire flight control system automatically corrects for movement caused by wind gusts, he explained, resulting in an exceptionally smooth ride even while hand-flying the airplane.

“One of the things that has made a dramatic difference between the 787 and previous models is the improvement in the computing power,” added Sinnett. “So we’ve got on the order of something like 18 million source lines of code in the avionics and flight control system, and we can do it with smaller packaging, less weight and [less] power consumption. This gives us greater flexibility to address all kinds of missions in the air.”

Sinnett explained that the system works by sensing differential pressure on the control surfaces before the airplane responds inertially, both laterally and, for the first time, vertically. As a result, passengers experience less of the effects of turbulence, both during approach and in cruise, as well as the bouncing motion related to the vibration caused by structural loads. “That’s a feature we’ll continue to tune,” he said. “As we gain service experience we’ll improve the efficacy of the system.”

ANA Is Launch Customer

Of course, by the time the Dubai Air Show opened Boeing had received feedback from launch customer All Nippon Airways on the performance of that system and all the airplane’s advances, not the least of which centers on the promise of a 20-percent fuel burn advantage thanks largely to its composite fuselage and Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines. Flying domestic services to Hiroshima and Okayama from Toyko Haneda Airport since November 1, ANA officially took delivery of the first airplane on September 26. Two days later, the airplane arrived in Tokyo amid great fanfare, albeit tainted somewhat by more than three years of program delays.

To hear ANA CEO Shinichiro Ito speak at the first delivery ceremony in Everett, Washington, however, one wouldn’t have detected any lingering frustration, as he accepted the ceremonial key to the 787 from Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh. “I cannot wait to see the day when the skies of the world are filled with 787s,” said Ito.

ANA plans to fly its first regularly scheduled international service between Tokyo Haneda and Beijing next month, followed by Haneda-Frankfurt in January.

Expecting to take delivery of four of the airplanes during this calendar year and another eight by the end of March 31, ANA holds an order for 55 of the airplanes, 15 of which will come in the form of the larger 787-9. ANA vice president for North America Satoru Fujiki told reporters in Everett that although the airline will start flying the 787 on domestic and short-haul international routes, ANA’s long-term strategy centers on long-haul services because the Japanese market has “matured.”

Notwithstanding the delivery delays, Fujiki said the “the timing is right” to start replacing the company’s Boeing 767s with the Dreamliner and begin “redrawing the map” of the global aviation industry. Noting that the 787 can fly 52 percent farther than the 767, Fujiki said the 787 would arrive in separate configurations for domestic service (12 premium class and 252 standard class seats), short-haul international flights (42 business class and 180 economy class) and long-haul international service (46 business class and 112 economy). Although it now serves domestic destinations, the first airplane came configured for short-haul international flights to facilitate staff training.