Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How the Boeing Dreamliner Works


A Dream(liner) Is Born

The Dreamliner was actually born from adaptation. In the late 1990s, as sales for the popular midsize 767 and 777 slumped, Boeing tested the market waters and introduced a project called the Sonic Cruiser. Conceived with speed in mind, the Sonic Cruiser promised to carry passengers from one place to another 15 percent faster in a completely redesigned, modern aircraft. Sept. 11, 2001, however, changed all that. When fuel prices skyrocketed, airlines were interested in efficiency, not fuel-guzzling speed. So, in 2002, Boeing changed its game plan. The company canceled the Sonic Cruiser project and initiated an alternate plan. In January 2003, the 7E7, subsequently christened the 787 Dreamliner, was born.

The so-called "first new airplane of the 21st century" created an immediate stir. From ditching traditional aluminum and steel for mostly carbon composite materials in its construction to intensive passenger-driven research to overhaul the plane's interior, the Dreamliner wasn't just another airplane for Boeing. The company also turned heads in the industry as it explored a rather unconventional manufacturing business model that we touched on in the intro (and will revisit later).

Airlines were quick to respond to Boeing's vision. Built for efficiency, the Dreamliner promised to cut costs significantly in a market where it was increasingly difficult to operate. What's more, the interior of the 787 planes would retain the sexy design features intended for the Sonic Cruiser. As a result, orders for the Dreamliner climbed to record-breaking numbers -- nearly 700 sales from 47 customers were recorded before the first test plane was even built [source: Kingsley-Jones].

With a vision firmly in place, and Japan's All Nippon Airways (ANA) on board as its launch partner, Boeing set out to make the Dreamliner a reality. At the crux of this vision were composite fiber materials.