Boeing's Plastic Plane Takes Off

The Boeing 787 is the first commercial jet to have fuselage and wings made of advanced plasticlike materials known as composites

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Erico Guizzo is IEEE Spectrum's Digital Innovation Director.

Boeing's Plastic Plane Takes Off

boeing 787 dreamliner

Back in 2006, I wrote: "Sometime next year, the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner will rise into the skies above Seattle. The takeoff will probably be like any other, but the plane sure won't."

Well, the "next year" part was a little off. After more than two years of delays, the first flight of the 787 happened yesterday.

Now, as for the plane itself, it's very special indeed. From my 2006 Spectrum article, "Carbon Takeoff":

The midsize, wide-body 787--whose overall design Boeing finalized just a few months ago--is the first commercial jet to have fuselage and wings made almost entirely of advanced, plasticlike materials known as composites. Composites are mixtures of resins and high-strength fibers of carbon, boron, graphite, or glass. They are generally lighter, stronger, and more resistant to fatigue and corrosion than the aluminum alloys widely used in planes today. In the 787, Boeing is using mostly carbon-fiber composites, which in smaller quantities are found in items such as high-end bicycle frames and the fenders of expensive sports cars.

The aerospace industry has sought to use more and more composites instead of metal to create more agile and fuel-efficient aircraft. These new materials have been going into military planes for decades, and in recent commercial aircraft they account for 10 to 25 percent of the total weight; they are used in small fuselage components, tails, and select portions of the wings, such as trailing-edge flaps.

But fully half of Boeing's 250-seat Dreamliner will be composites. The company says that thanks to the new materials, an improved aerodynamic design, and better engines and onboard systems, the 787 will burn 20 percent less fuel than comparable jetliners and have maintenance costs 10 percent lower.

The use of composites is just part of the story. The other big innovation was the way Boing had the new plane designed. The company recruited collaborators from Japan, Italy, and Australia to help not only fabricate but also design the 787. To design the carbon wings Boing partnered with three "heavies" of Japanese industry: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, and Fuji Heavy Industries. Again from my story:

[Boeing wing design team leader Mark Jenks] says that for past planes, Boeing followed a "build to print" model: the partners would come in only at a later stage and would basically fabricate the parts according to Boeing's specifications. But for the 787, the partners were brought in about four and a half years earlier, which gave them enough time to participate in the early design work and provide input based on their manufacturing expertise. The scheme also let Boeing spread the risk, because the company's partners picked up a sizable portion of the development costs in exchange for a bigger share of the profits that will accrue if the plane is successful.

Having more hands in the drawing board had its advantages but it surely created problems as well. The Seattle Timesreported early this month:

Then, starting in 2007, supply-chain problems led to a series of morale-sapping delays costing billions of dollars, and the Dreamliner program shuddered to a standstill.

As the long-delayed first flight finally arrives, any sense of triumph has been dampened by repeated snarls in building the first few jets, compounded this year by a design flaw discovered at the wing-body joint.

Aviation Week had more details on the recent wing problem:

After five earlier delays that put the program about two years behind schedule, Boeing expected the 787 to fly last June. But a last-minute analysis of stresses placed on stringers in its wing as the wing bent to simulated flight loads did not conform to predictions in Boeing's computer analysis. The weakness showed as delamination at the ends of the stringers. They are rib-like strengtheners that run the length of the wing. They are connected to the fuselage at the side-of-body join and it was in that region that they failed to meet specifications. There are 17 for each wing and all were strengthened.

In the end, Boeing's decision to focus on a midsize, fuel-efficient plane -- in contrast to the gigantic A380 of archrival Airbus -- proved a prescient, and profitable, choice. Boeing says it has received 840 orders so far, which makes the 787 the fastest-selling new commercial jetliner ever.

The image we ran in my 2006 story was an artist's rendering; it showed a computer-generated 787 gliding against blue sky and fluffy clouds. Yesterday was a gray rainy day in Everett, Wash., from where the plane took off. But at least now the images are real.

boeing dreamliner 787

Photos: Boeing

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