How the Boeing Dreamliner Works

By: John Perritano & Vicki M. Giuggio  | 
Boeing Dreamliner taxis
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner taxis in front of a crowd of Boeing employees before its long-awaited first flight on Dec. 15, 2009, at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. See more flight pictures.
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

On Oct. 26, 2011, 240 reporters, aviation enthusiasts and assorted passengers climbed into the sky on the maiden commercial voyage of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The plane was Boeing's long-awaited, much-discussed aircraft that's bent on revolutionizing long-haul flights and reconnecting passengers with the experience of flying.

With its lightweight carbon-fiber body and wings, a 21st-century electrical system, a spacious cabin and a design that allows the plane to burn 20 percent less fuel than other midsize airliners, the Dreamliner was a dream come true for Boeing, its passengers, and the airlines that shelled out more than $200 million per plane. Then, like a Stephen King novel, the dream turned into a nightmare. A computer-related brake issue, fuel leaks and other problems cropped up in the aircraft.


On Jan. 7, 2013, a fire occurred. The battery in the underbelly of a Japan Airlines 787 caught fire as the plane sat on the tarmac in Boston. The blaze sparked an investigation of the Dreamliner's systems. Within days of the Boston fire, a 787 made an emergency landing in Japan after passengers began smelling smoke. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all 787s in the United States (there were only six at the time) until engineers could figure out what was wrong [source: Ahlers].

Were these problems inevitable? Did Boeing, concerned about high costs, doom the Dreamliner before its first flight? No one can say for sure. However, long before the first Dreamliner took to the air, Boeing officials devised a way to save money on construction. Boeing's suppliers would become its partners. The suppliers would spend their own money to produce entire sections of the 787. In return, each company would share in the revenue generated by the sale of each Dreamliner. Like an Erector Set project, the top suppliers sent each portion of the Dreamliner to Boeing's factory in Everett, Wash., where workers put the plane together in three days [source: Stone and Ray].

How well did it work out? At least initially, not well, experts say. A shortage of parts delayed the project, causing it to fall behind schedule. By the time the Dreamliner went into service in 2011, the project had undergone seven delays. In fact, the first 787 was held together with temporary fasteners. That's because the permanent fasteners were nowhere in sight. The problems associated with the plane were long and varied. Some experts blame Boeing's overreliance on other companies for the delays and problems [source: Stone and Ray].

Still, on Oct. 26, 2011, the Dreamliner made its first voyage. Some 240 people climbed aboard the airplane, all seemingly amazed and impressed at what they saw. And despite the Dreamliner's many problems, some people still believe the 787 will revolutionize the aviation industry.


Major Changes for Airplane Interiors

business class in the ANA Dreamliner
The business class seats on one of All Nippon Airways' Boeing 787 Dreamliners
Steven Brashear/Getty Images

Sweeping arches. Interior windows 30 percent larger than those on any other plane its size. Manual shades replaced by an electronic system that blocks the light from getting in without obstructing the view. These are just some of the features on the Dreamliner that initially left passengers agog [sources: Stevens].

The Dreamliner was indeed a dream, or at least Boeing and the airlines hoped it would be. Design-minded folks who climbed aboard that first flight in 2011 were likely amazed at the lighting. Boeing bid farewell to fluorescent and hello to LED lighting. The LEDs, with 128 color combinations, made the inside look and feel as if passengers were floating in the sky among the clouds. The lights could even simulate the day from dawn to dusk. With long flights in mind, Boeing said the lighting would help tell fliers that it's time to sleep. Those first fliers also probably took in the overhead bins, which can accommodate up to four roll-aboard bags. Positioned at an angle, the bins leave more space above passengers' heads and are meant to make the cabin feel larger.


Finally, there were the seats. The Dreamliner may give the illusion of more space, but if you're flying economy, it's probably still going to be cramped. Based on anticipated configuration orders from airlines, the seat pitch in economy is now 31-32 inches (79-81 centimeters), and seat width will be less than 19 inches (48 centimeters) across [sources: Flynn, USA Today]. In other words, not much different from standard economy, but Boeing isn't necessarily to blame. In their configuration choices, airlines are the ultimate decision makers regarding how much space each passenger will have once seated. It's likely that if you're flying economy, you'll still be bumping elbows and knees throughout the flight.

Boeing's launch partner, All Nippon Airways (ANA), picked a shell-style economy seat, which slides forward instead of hinging backward. This means that when you recline, it doesn't hinder the precious legroom of the passenger behind you. The airline also designed seats that recline into beds for its business class. All passengers on ANA's Dreamliner also will have access to USB ports and electric outlets for charging their cell phones or using their computers.


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.


Boeing Dreamliner: Crazy About Composite Technology

Airplanes are traditionally constructed using mostly aluminum and steel, with composite materials limited to smaller portions of their structure. Boeing, however, opted to increase the use of composite materials, eliminating 1,500 aluminum sheets and 40,000-50,000 fasteners -- just from the fuselage of the plane alone [source: Boeing].

Composites are materials that are made up of more than one element. For instance, a piñata is made from a composite of paper and paste. The Dreamliner uses composites that are called carbon reinforced plastics (CRFPs). You can think of those carbon fibers as the "paper," and those fibers are embedded in a plastic matrix ("paste"), such as an epoxy resin.


Manufacturing carbon composites is much more complicated than dipping paper in paste, but it follows the same general principle. The process begins by generating carbon fibers made from another polymer, called polyacrylonitrile (PAN). Processing PAN in a series of complicated heating and stretching steps purifies the carbon atoms, which rearrange themselves from ladder to ringlike structures and take the form of long sheets of ribbon. Packing the ribbons together creates carbon fibers. Following further processing, the fibers are used to reinforce a plastic matrix, which is in a thick, gooey state. The resulting composite can then be molded before another heating process hardens it into an ultrastrong material. In fact, CRFPs are so strong that, at one-quarter the density of steel, they are two to three times stronger than steel [source: Flight International]. Not only that, they're superlight as compared to metal.

CRFPs have been around for more than 40 years. They have been used extensively to replace aluminum or steel in golf shafts, fishing rods, medical equipment and machine parts, or to repair bridges. Even some racing bicycles are made from CRFPs.

The use of composites in the Dreamliner isn't groundbreaking, but the extent to which they are used is. As much as 50 percent of the plane is composite material by weight, compared to, say, 12 percent in the Boeing 777 [source: Boeing]. In fact, the Dreamliner is the first aircraft in which the wing and fuselage are constructed from composite materials. And, as we'll see next, manufacturing a one-piece fuselage section out of composites isn't a piece of cake; however, by replacing so much metal with composites, the plane is not only much lighter but is also more aerodynamic. Features, such as sweptback wings, which aren't possible with metal, could be engineered into the plane because of the increased malleability of composites.

What's more, composites corrode less and are more robust than metal, which reduces the maintenance required for the plane. Composites have lower thermal and electrical conductivity than metals, however. This meant that Boeing had to develop entirely different approaches for managing the electrical and thermal systems on the plane to deal with shorts and the like.

An added benefit of a stronger composite fuselage structure is that higher pressurization in the passenger cabin is possible. This makes humidity, ventilation and temperature easier to control. We'll see how Boeing exploited this feature when designing the interior for the Dreamliner later, but first let's look at what the aviation industry considers Boeing's most revolutionary feat -- building the plane.


Building the Dream

Dreamliner flight deck
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 piñata 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.


Passengers Know Best: Designing the Dreamliner Cabin

The history of aircraft cabin design can be described as staid at best. Following the presumption that airlines know best what passengers wanted and needed, manufacturers traditionally relied on airline guidance for cabin design. Boeing, however, had a vision for the Dreamliner. Although economics put the ill-fated Sonic Cruiser project to bed, the company was intent on retaining the modern, innovative design concepts for its successor. It decided to continue its passenger-focused design research to develop the Dreamliner's interior.

In 2002, Boeing opened the Passenger Experience Research Center (PERC) adjacent to the Boeing Tour Center in Everett, Wash. At PERC, the company performed qualitative studies that tapped passengers' brains to figure out their wants, needs and desires. To do this, Boeing used a proprietary method, dubbed Archetype Discovery, to extract key psychological and emotional components regarding air travel common in all passengers. Although the details of the methodology are a tightly guarded secret, Archetype Discovery uses specific questions and techniques to tap into unarticulated wants and needs by exploring each participant's early experiences with flight. Boeing used what it learned in order to evoke the fascination with flying passengers felt during their early experiences [source: Emery].


Boeing also asked passengers to participate in idealized design sessions. Potential fliers were invited to create an ideal aircraft interior from scratch, within viable technology and operational constraints. Those arched ceilings that are a hallmark of the Dreamliner's interior? They can be attributed to what Boeing learned from those sessions. The company found that passengers idealized the use of modulated space, reminiscent of the architecture found in churches. Low-ceilinged vestibules that transition into open, spacious interiors evoke a welcoming, inviting experience [source: Emery].

Finally, thanks to that superstrong fuselage, Boeing had more options regarding cabin pressure, ventilation and humidity -- why not directly test these conditions on potential passengers? The company teamed with universities to conduct studies to identify how passenger comfort and well-being could be optimized. For instance, such studies revealed that passengers experienced fewer headaches and less motion sickness and muscular discomfort at a cabin pressure equivalent to flying at 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) than they did at 8,000 feet (2,438 meters), which is the standard level of pressurization used on comparable size aircraft [source: Emery]. Boeing adjusted cabin features so passengers will feel the ill effects of long-haul flights less. This means fewer headaches, dry noses and eye irritations.

It took nearly a decade to perform this research, but that isn't abnormal for an industry where product inception to market typically takes 10 years [source: Barratt]. Boeing broke new ground with its research, however, as no plane manufacturer has ever devoted so much attention to the passenger experience before.

In the end, the Dreamliner arrived three years later than anticipated. Was it worth the wait? Let's see what the plane can do and how it will affect the future of air travel.


The Finished Product

The first of two Dreamliner variants, the 787-8, was delivered to Boeing's launch partner, All Nippon Airways, on Sept. 27, 2011. The 787-8, which weighs 35 percent less than the Boeing 777-200LR, can hold around 240 passengers and is the first midsize twin aisle aircraft that will be able to fly 7,650-8,200 nautical miles (14,200-15,000 kilometers) in one go [source: Boeing].

The 787-9, which will be rolled out in 2014, will have a longer fuselage. It will be able to carry 250-290 passengers for a jaunt of 8,000-8,500 nautical miles (14,800-15,750 kilometers). General Electric and Rolls-Royce manufacture engines for the Dreamliners, and both use advanced technologies that increase fuel efficiency and decrease noise. Thanks to the lighter weight, improved aerodynamics and engines of the Dreamliners, they will burn 20 percent less fuel than any other existing similar sized aircraft [source: Boeing]. How much are we talking? Well, a flight from Los Angles to Narita, Japan, will cost airlines approximately $12,600 less in fuel on the Dreamliner when compared to the Boeing 777 [source: Hennigan].


All Nippon Airways initially planned to use the 787-8 on regular flights to Beijing, Frankfurt and Hong Kong starting in November 2011. Although Boeing's production and delivery woes caused some cancellations in orders, Boeing still had more than 800 orders from 53 customers worldwide for the Dreamliner in 2011, which costs around $202 million each. Before the battery woes, the company had hoped to be churning out 10 per month by 2013 [source: Hepher].

Airlines will be able to customize cabin interiors more extensively than before with individualized color schemes and branding. The 787-8 is available in three different configurations:

  1. 234 passengers in a three-class configuration
  2. 240 in two classes
  3. 296 people in a high-density, all economy configuration

The Dreamliner operated mostly from Eurasia initially -- ANA, Japan Airlines and Air India had a total of 117 planes on order to be delivered in 2011 between them. United Airlines became the first carrier in North America to put the plane into flight; it had a total of six, as of January 2013. As more Dreamliners are delivered, new long-range routes will connect cities that until now have not had nonstop flights. For instance, once the Dreamliner is added to its fleet, United Continental Holdings plans to add nonstop service between Auckland, New Zealand, and Houston, Texas, representing United's first direct flight to New Zealand from North America [source: PR Newswire].

Due to its efficiency, the Dreamliner promises to make more nonstop, long-haul flights possible for travelers. Will that passenger-friendly interior make them more bearable? Time will tell. One thing is for sure: Composite technology and lithium ion batteries promise to play a big role in aircraft construction in the future.


Frequently Answered Questions

Is Boeing 787 same as Dreamliner?
Boeing 787 and Dreamliner are the same aircraft.

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More Great Links

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