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How the Boeing Dreamliner Works


Building the Dream
The flight deck of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner
The flight deck of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Scaling up and building large composite structures is guaranteed to come with problems, but Boeing also took the unprecedented tactic of deciding to use more than 50 subcontractors to outsource production [sources: Deckstein, Bloomberg]. Not even the plane's wings and enormous fuselage would be built in-house. This decision represented a drastic deviation from industry manufacturing strategies. It also led to major headaches, as outsourcing issues resulted in a sizable number of production delays.

Boeing envisioned that components would arrive at its plant in Seattle, where final assembly of the new jet would take just three days [source: Deckstein]. Things didn't go exactly according to plan, however. From overwhelmed subcontractors to unacceptable products that failed Boeing's standards upon testing, milestone after milestone was missed as production delays mounted. Eventually, Boeing had to step in and assume some of its subcontractors' responsibilities to get the Dreamliner construction back on track.

Manufacturing composites on a large scale was a huge technical challenge as well. It had never been done before. Building the sections for the plane's fuselage, or body, involved spinning reinforced carbon fibers around a barrel mold, which was then baked. It may sound simple, but if you think about it, this is a logistical nightmare for an industry that usually makes parts no larger than a bicycle [source: Smock]. To do this, carbon fibers, which are like wide strips of loosely woven tape, had to be dipped into polymers, which have a thick honeylike consistency. Then, you have to wrap them around a mold that's approximately 19 feet (5.8 meters) in diameter and 22 feet (6.7 meters) in height [source: Bloomberg]. Obviously, this isn't a task to be done by hand.

Further, for large components, multiple composite layers are required in order to assure structural integrity. At face value that seems like nothing more than repeating a process one or two times, but layering composites raises the likelihood that bubbles will occur during the baking process. Although bubbles on a paper-mache piƱata may amount to nothing more than aesthetics, for a fuselage they're unacceptable. Bubbles weaken the material, which can crack and undermine the integrity of the fuselage.

To overcome large-scale carbon fiber processing and taping over complex geometric shapes, new tooling essentially had to be developed and manufactured. In the end, machine tool producers rose to the challenge. Thanks to their innovative manufacturing solutions, the Dreamliner became a reality.

While the composite industry was redefining how planes are built, Boeing was intent on redefining the Dreamliner's interior, too. Step inside next.