Dreamliner's "Virtual Takeoff"

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.

Dreamliner's "Virtual Takeoff"

In December, Boeing held a "virtual rollout" of the Dreamliner. It demonstrated how the aircraft has been designed and will be manufactured to about 3,000 employees and more than 100 visiting airline representatives.

As part of the demonstration, Boeing showed how in the early design stages, it was discovered that an electronics box manufactured by supplier Hamilton Sundstrand wouldn't fit into the plane's electrical equipment bay. The conflict was caught, and highlighted in red, by the Catia design software. Engineers were able to redesign the bay, essentially by shifting a beam, so the box would fit. If that conflict had not been caught until production began, it could have led to lengthy delays or a costly retrofit.

As impressive as the virtual rollout seemed, it was just that—a virtual rendition of the plane. A Dreamliner has yet to be built, and despite Fowler's confidence, Boeing cannot be certain it won't run into the same difficulties encountered by Airbus, or new, as-yet-undiscovered challenges involving the heavy use of composite materials in the plane, says Hans Weber, president of Tecop International, a San Diego aviation consulting firm.

Still, if Boeing succeeds in its drive to deliver its first 787 Dreamliner to All Nippon Airways in May 2008, seven months after the first A380 is set to go into service, it will have achieved a number of concrete benefits through the use of PLM software.

First, it will have shaved one year, or about 20% to 25%, off the time it normally takes to shepherd a new plane from concept through design and engineering and into production, according to Fowler.

As a prime example of how those savings are achieved, Fowler points to virtual test flights.

Just over a year ago, pilots began putting the 787 design through a variety of flight simulations. During one such test, where the plane is evaluated on whether it could take off on a single engine, pilots determined that it didn't have enough "fin control"—that is, fins used to stabilize the aircraft weren't functioning as desired. Over a period of four weeks, engineers evaluated more than 50 different fin configurations to give pilots the performance they were looking for. "Traditionally, we might have been only able to evaluate three or four options, and it would have taken three months," Fowler adds.

Second, Boeing expects to achieve a similar 20% to 25% cut in development costs by eliminating costly mock-ups and by working out kinks in manufacturing before going into production. Based on the plane's estimated $8 billion to $10 billion development budget, it could translate into savings in the area of $2 billion to $3 billion.

"One of the biggest lessons we learned on the 777 program," Fowler points out, "is that there is tremendous value in the digital data in terms of how it can be utilized throughout the entire life cycle of a project.

"That has been our biggest objective with the Dreamliner—to use that single source of data from when we take customer orders through design, through manufacturing and right through to support after the customer takes delivery," he says. "That's the real power and where the real benefits come from with PLM."

Editor's Note: This story was updated to explain how Boeing is using Parametric Technology's Windchill product lifecycle management software.

Next page: Boeing Base Case

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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