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Boeing 787 basics

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The Boeing 787 Dreamliner's innovations cover how it's made, what it's made from and how it works. The biggest advance is that 50 per cent is made from carbon fiber composites.

I've been writing a lot of 787 Dreamliner coverage recently that's geared for 787 junkies and gearheads so on the eve of its first flight, I wanted to do something on the basics.

The 787 Dreamliner is the first new widebody passenger jetliner from Boeing since the introduction of 777 about 15 years ago. Although, it's two years late, the plane has accumulated north of 800 orders worth $150 billion at list prices. Over the two decades, Boeing anticipates making 3,500 planes worth about $610 billion.

In other words, Boeing has bet the farm on the Boeing 787.

Three models, the 787-8 (the one that will fly tomorrow, weather permitting), 787-9 and 787-3 will carry 210-330 passengers. They list for $150-205.5 million although airlines usually cut deals for less than that.

The 787 is significant for how it's made, how it works and what it's made from. The plane is comprised of 50 per cent plastic known as carbon fiber composites. That compares to 25 per cent in the A380 Airbus, the plane that comes closest to the 787 in the use of composites.

Composites are lighter and cheaper to maintain than aluminum, steel and titanium, the three traditional staple materials for jetliners. For instance, Boeing projects composites won't need heavy maintenance for a dozen years whereas aluminum has to be checked for corrosion several times within than span of time. What's more, composites allow for greater cabin pressurization and humidity to you feel better and less dried out when you land after a long flight.

For instance, the forward fuselage barrel made from composites replaces 1,500 sheets of aluminum and requires 40,000-50,000 fasteners or 80 per cent fewer than in a conventional aluminum fuselage. How it holds up won't be known for certain until it's flown a few hundred times, but composites hold a lot of promise and are a big contributor to the 30 per cent lower maintenance costs Boeing projects for its customers.

Investigators have looked at the possible failure of composites in the Air France Airbus A330 that crashed mid-flight over the South Atlantic in June, but nothing is conclusive.

The second  innovation is how the plane is made. Boeing only makes 30 per cent of the components while 40 tier one suppliers around the globe make the key components for the rest of it such as fuselage, wings, wingbox and tail. Those components are flow in Boeing's massive plant in Everett, Wash. and assembled in three days into a finished plane. That's the goal anyway. A second final assembly plant is under construction in North Charleston, S.C.

About 70 per cent of the components are made in the U.S. and the rest overseas.

The final major innovation is that the 787 is a much more electric airplane with two large generators taking over from pneumatically-driven systems. This improve fuel efficiency by 15 per cent and lowers emissions by 20 per cent. Without pneumatics, the engines made by Roll Royce and GE are known as "no-bleed." The generators are driven directly from the engines.

The absence of pneumatic parts makes the plane is the plane lighter and simpler. The same applies to a reduction of 60 miles of copper wiring over a similarly sized airplane.

Written and filed from the Denver Airport en route to first flight in Everett, Wash.

Complete coverage of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner on SmartPlanet:

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure