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7E7 Shifts to Composites

  • Tuesday, 17th June 2003
  • Reading time: about 5 minutes

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Boeing has confirmed that the proposed new 7E7 will be made mostly from carbon-fiber composite materials. The planned usage of advanced composites is even more extensive than had been rumored: The new materials will replace aluminum on both the wings and the fuselage.

Mike Bair, Boeing Commercial Airplanes senior vice president of the 7E7 program, recently made a speech in Everett when he laid out the advantages of composites. The major benefit is that the plane will be much lighter, which makes it highly fuel efficient. For Boeing’s airline customers, the cost of fuel is a significant part of the cost of operating an airplane.

In addition, the composites manufacturing process will allow Boeing to design large “”monolithic”” or single-piece structures in intricate shapes. Bair said that Boeing wants final assembly to take three days and to be done without overhead cranes. Snapping together fewer, larger pieces will make that possible. It is anticipated that the plane’s largest primary structures, including the wings and the fuselage, will be made overseas and shipped to whichever final assembly plant Boeing selects for the 7E7.

On June 3, Airbus selected Mitsubishi Rayon Co. (MRC) as supplier of advanced composites for the forthcoming superjumbo A380. The materials will be produced at MRC’s Toyohashi plant in Japan. Mitsubishi Heavy Industry, a sister company of MRC, will be a major contender to build the wings of the 7E7.

Bair also said that, to enhance passenger comfort, Boeing plans to pressurize the 7E7 cabin to the equivalent of 6,000-foot altitude rather than the standard 8,000 feet. About 10 percent of the structural weight of Boeing’s most advanced current jet, the 777, is made from composites, including the entire tail section. The vertical fin and horizontal stabilizers of the tail are made in Boeing’s Frederickson fabrication plant near Tacoma. Toray, a Japanese company with a factory in Tacoma, currently supplies the composites’ raw material to Frederickson.

Airbus’ A380 jet is slated to have 40 percent of its structural weight constructed from composites. This includes large primary structural parts such as the wing box and the keel beam that runs the length of the fuselage.

Boeing also said it is developing sensors that can be embedded in the composite structures of the 7E7 to detect impacts and monitor structural integrity. If a plane were to have a hard landing, for example, the sensors could detect the effect across the structure and relay the information to the pilot or to the ground if the stress crossed predetermined thresholds.

In a bid to maintain its hold on aircraft structures, aluminum makers had been pitching to Boeing the use of new alloys that are 10 percent lighter and more cost-effective than standard metals. Kevin Lowery, a spokesman for Alcoa, expressed disappointment at Boeing’s decision but played down its importance to the aluminum industry.

“”The metallic content of the (current) commercial fleet is 90 percent and will remain so for the life of those (airplanes),”” said Lowery. “”Our core business remains very stable.”” Aerospace contracts accounted for $1.5 billion, or 7.4 percent of Alcoa’s 2002 revenues, Lowery said.

Boeing was also naming its first supplier partners for the proposed 7E7 last week, drawing heavily from specialists in carbon-fiber composite materials previously named to the technology team for the now-defunct Sonic Cruiser.

The group was thought to include Vought Aircraft Industries of Dallas and Alenia Aeronautica of Italy. Also expected to be a partner is Japan Aircraft Industries (JAI), which includes longtime Boeing suppliers Fuji Heavy Industries, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and Kawasaki Heavy Industries.

Boeing was not expected to specify what pieces of the airplane each supplier will build, nor is it going to discuss the terms of the supplier relationships. But Alan Mulally, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, confirmed the possibility that supplier partners could become equity investors in a separate company to build the 7E7. “”I wouldn’t rule that out,”” Mulally said. Mulally promised that its supplier relationships will be “”significantly different”” than in the past.

Lynne Warne, a spokeswoman for Vought, confirmed the longtime-Boeing supplier will be one of the partners named to the team. But she said it is not yet known what parts, or how much of the plane, Vought will build. Vought builds nearly the entire 747 fuselage in California and ships the pieces by rail to Boeing’s Everett plant.

The Dallas company supplies a relatively small portion of the 777. By contrast, the Japanese heavies build fuselage panels for that airplane as well as the twin-aisle 767 and ship them by sea to Everett.

Alenia is also awaiting word on the extent of its participation in the program, although the Italian company has expressed a desire to invest substantially in the program to expand its ties with Boeing. “”(The 7E7) is a very significant project for us,”” said Stefano Tagliani, a spokesman for Alenia. “”We think the aerostructures are strategic for our business and for Boeing. The two partners are still evaluating the amount of the project that Alenia will take. We hope to play a significant role.””

Mulally did not mention JAI by name at the news conference but said he expects Japanese suppliers to produce as much or more of the 7E7 as the roughly 21 percent of the 777 they currently manufacture. “”They’ve got some tremendous expertise in composites and they’ll bring a lot to the design team,”” Mulally said.

Boeing was expected to name one materials supplier per continent. Consequently, Vought will be the sole U.S. supplier and Alenia will be the sole European member of the team. That means Britain’s GKN Aerospace, Fischer Advanced Composite Components of Austria and Stork Fokker Aerostructures of the Netherlands, which worked on the Sonic Cruiser, did not make the cut.

“”Composites have been everybody’s dream on airplanes forever,”” Mulally said, noting their strength, light weight and resistance to corrosion. “”The problem has been cost.”” Boeing believes new manufacturing techniques will bring the costs down to favorable levels for the 7E7.

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