Different Flight Path

By Doug Bartholomew Print this article Print

Product life-cycle management is helping to get Boeing's 787 off the ground, but is a key factor in Airbus' A380 delays.

Different Flight Path

When the Boeing board of directors gave formal approval to the 787 Dreamliner program in April 2004, work had already been going on for two years behind the scenes to get ready for the formal launch. In early 2002, Carol Pittman, then information-technology director for the 787 program, began meeting with Fowler, the systems integration chief, to sketch out a technology strategy.

Pittman and Fowler agreed to anchor the Dreamliner on Dassault's PLM platform, largely based on the success Boeing achieved in the all-digital design of the 777. They would use all three major components of the Dassault PLM suite: Catia V5 for the design; Delmia, the virtual manufacturing package that allows partners to take the electronic designs created in Catia and simulate how those parts or components will be manufactured on the factory floor; and Enovia, the collaboration platform that provides engineers with access to the master vault of information on the 787, such as electronic designs and component specifications.

One of the first critical strategies they agreed upon was ensuring software compatibility. Fowler says Boeing was already well aware of the difficulties that could be encountered from exchanging information between different CAD systems through Boeing's extensive experience working with various CAD packages throughout its operations.

Fowler says he wanted to avoid such trouble on the Dreamliner. There was simply too much at stake.

While it has recently been stealing business from Airbus as airlines look for alternatives to the superjumbo, that hasn't been the general trend. In fact, Airbus overtook Boeing in 2001 as the world's largest manufacturer of commercial airplanes and led every year until Boeing's comeback in 2006. Aside from competitive reasons, the Dreamliner also represents a dramatic change in manufacturing for Boeing—one that makes ensuring software compatibility that much more critical. When the Dreamliner takes to the skies in 2008, it will be the first commercial jet to have a fuselage and wings made almost entirely of plastic-like composite materials—mixtures of high-strength fibers, resins and carbon. The new materials, combined with other advancements such as an improved aerodynamic design and more efficient engines, will allow the 787 to burn 20% less fuel than comparable airliners and achieve a 10% to 20% reduction in maintenance costs. The project's development budget is confidential, but estimates are in the range of $8 billion to $10 billion.

In the past, the standard practice for Boeing has been to design the plane in-house, then pass blueprints for parts or whole sections of the plane to manufacturing partners. This time, however, Boeing is turning that process on its head, designing the 787 in collaboration with its partners using the PLM software from Dassault. Essentially, some 6,000 engineers around the world are jointly designing and engineering the aircraft. Partners include companies such as Alenia Aeronautica of Italy, which is building the plane's main fuselage; Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which is also building part of the fuselage as well as the wings and landing gear; and Goodrich Aerostructures of Chula Vista, Calif., which is constructing the nacelles (shell around the engines) and thrust reversers.

"There are a number of advantages to putting the people closest to the work in charge," Fowler says. The manufacturer of the fuselage, for example, will ultimately know the most cost-efficient method to build the structure. Component manufacturers can point out whether their existing machinery can manufacture a part, or whether new robots or tools will need to be purchased. By altering the design, say, by using a 6 millimeter fastener instead of an 8 millimeter fastener, they may be able to produce the part with existing machinery or manufacture the part faster, saving time and money.

Pittman and Fowler agreed that all engineers working on the 787 would work in Catia V5—no substitutions. This is not as simple as it sounds. For starters, it requires a large up-front investment. Boeing and its suppliers are paying an estimated $20,000 per desktop for the software, which, based on 6,000 engineers worldwide, works out to about $120 million. In addition, engineers do not always adapt well to being told what software to use. Most have spent years learning how to use a specific software package, often customizing it to meet their preferences and learning through experience exactly how digital designs translate into actual engineering.

"We considered allowing our partners to use their own preferred applications, but we decided that wasn't feasible because of the [data] integration challenges," Pittman explains. "It wasn't a popular decision, and we really had to work on explaining why we were doing it."

Boeing provided its suppliers with a financial incentive to get on board with Catia V5. "If you use the common Catia tool, Boeing will provide you with the tool and the support for free," says Barsamian, who trains Boeing engineers to use the software.

Another key plank in the company's strategy was ensuring software version control. Even though all Boeing engineers and partners were starting off with the same version of the various software packages, there is ample opportunity to lose control as updates are released and new partners are brought on board. The team decided that software updates would take place at four specified points in a year—referred to as Block Points—and that all Boeing engineers working on the Dreamliner and all outside partners would receive software updates at the same time.

Again, this understates the complexity of the task. For starters, the updates include far more than Dassault's software; they involve dozens of other applications that are used in the design and engineering process to do everything from test the stress tolerance of composite materials to achieve optimum aerodynamics. Many of the applications have been internally developed by Boeing; however, a number have been developed by third-party vendors, such as Metrologic, whose software is being used for analyzing 3D measurements. In all, some 150 applications are updated at each Block Point.

The updates also include software from other PLM vendors. Boeing is using Windchill, a software package from Parametric Technology in conjunction with Dassault¹s Enovia, to streamline the process of managing changes to components on the Dreamliner. If changes are made to a window design, for example, those changes need to be conveyed to manufacturing partners and internal Boeing designers working on areas affected by the change. Parametric¹s Windchill manages that process, ensuring that engineers follow a consistent set of steps to resolve any conflicts and that changes are completed as requested. Brian Shepherd, vice president of product management for Parametric, notes that even when companies try to consolidate on one vendor¹s PLM offering, they often find certain functions, such as change management, are still best handled by third-party software.

In all, some 150 applications are updated by Boeing at each Block Point on the Dreamliner program.

A final cornerstone of the Dreamliner technology strategy involves the use of a master data repository for all design and engineering information. Enovia, the Dassault platform, is used as a gateway to a 16-terabyte data warehouse in Bellevue, Wash. Boeing encourages its partners to send updates to the data warehouse at least twice a week, and sometimes more frequently depending on the stage of work in progress. The warehouse is housed on Unix servers running IBM's DB2.

Boeing chose to use CAD and PDM systems from the same software firm, Dassault, thereby ensuring tight integration. Airbus, on the other hand, decided to mix and match. The European aerospace company is using a CAD package from Dassault and a data management system from Parametric Technology. In September 2005, Parametric announced that Airbus was extending the use of its data management solution, Windchill, as the platform for managing all CAD models for the A380 that are used in its digital mock-up.

But mixing and matching your CAD and data management vendors can require extra work to ensure a smooth fit. "If you want deep integration with your CAD data, it's best to go with a PDM system from your CAD vendor," Cheney says.

There are signs, though, that Airbus is already having second thoughts. In July 2006, Dassault announced that Airbus had chosen the Enovia platform for all its aircraft development programs. "Airbus has decided to expand the usage of Enovia VPLM [virtual product life-cycle management] to all programs," Dassault said in a press statement. "The Catia and Enovia VPLM combination is becoming the standard environment for all new programs at Airbus."

Does that mean Parametric's Windchill must go? Airbus isn't saying, but management has a ways to go to straighten out confusion engendered by allowing different versions of the same CAD program, not to mention competing data management packages.

Meanwhile, Boeing's Dreamliner seems set to take off into much friendlier skies. Pittman and Fowler both say that perhaps the most important factor in ensuring the program's ultimate success was gaining executive support at the onset. Without this backing, they say it would have been impossible to ensure that partners and even all Boeing engineers were complying with demands to use the same software, update on schedule and save data when required.

"Mike Bair [787 program chief] and [Boeing CIO] Scott Griffin really understand the importance of PLM and stood behind Kevin [Fowler] and me," Pittman says. "That was crucial in ensuring compliance."

Next page: Dreamliner's "Virtual Takeoff"

This article was originally published on 2007-02-05
Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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