Boeing 787 – A leap too far?

When Boeing launched their 787 they wanted a major leap in technology over existing designs. The A330-200 and A330-300 proved more efficient than the 767-300ER, 767-400ER and 777-200A. It offered much more cargo than the 767 competitors, and weighed 10 tons less than the 777-200A while carrying almost the same payload.

Boeing had a gap in their portfolio, which the 787 was supposed to fill. Boeing wanted their 787 to be a leap in technology compared to the A330 so that it would offer a 20% lower cost. They also wanted to offer better comfort than the A330. It was supposed to be faster, offer better humidity, and larger windows. To achieve all that Boeing decided to make the plane in composite.

More than 50% of the airplanes weight was designed in composites. Up from 10% on the Boeing 777. This achievement would be a generation leap compared to the newest A380 design from Airbus. But Boeing did not stop there. In order to make the fuselage even more efficient Boeing made fuselage barrels instead of a skeleton with composite skin outside.

In airplane production the 787 offers two leaps in production methods. In retrospect of the recent delays it seems like Boeing underestimated this and the maturity curve needed to fully understand this production method. Airbus is not pushing their A350XWB jet this far. Airbus opts for a more conventional method with composite fuselage skin upon a composite skeleton frame. When the 787 eventually enters service it will be a breakthrough airplane.

But how far we are from making this production method mature enough is anybody’s guess. What we know is that this maturity curve has cost Boeing a lot in both money and credibility. But once they have this production method knowledge, the 737 replacement as well as an eventually 777 replacement will come to the market without so much pain. ‘

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