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7E7 Team Close to a Decision on Composites

  • Monday, 2nd June 2003
  • Reading time: about 6 minutes

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Boeing’s 7E7 team is apparently closing in on a decision to use composites rather than advanced aluminum for major structures such as the fuselage.

However there are still technical and cost issues that need to be resolved. Mike Bair, 7E7 program vice president, is expected to provide more details of the material choices to be used on the proposed aircraft when he briefs reporters about the plane at next month’s Paris Air Show.

Last week, Bair spoke to a group of industry analysts about the 7E7 behind closed doors at Boeing’s investor conference in California. One analyst who sat in on that briefing said Bair told them that composites were likely to be used for major 7E7 structures.

Boeing already is quietly working with the Federal Aviation Administration on all-important certification issues for a 7E7 that would use more composites than current jetliners, according to industry sources.

The growing use of composite structures on airplanes came under closer examination after the crash in 2001 of an American Airlines jet shortly after takeoff from New York’s Kennedy Airport. The Airbus A300’s tail, made of a non-metallic composite material, snapped off before the plane crashed, killing all 260 people on board and five on the ground. The A300 is an older Airbus model.

Boeing jetliners contain composite pieces, but their widespread use for large airframe structures such as the wings and fuselage has been limited. The horizontal and vertical tail of the 777, Boeing’s last all-new plane, is made from composites.

The Airbus A380 super-jumbo now in development will make greater use of composites than current Boeing or Airbus jets — but far less than the 7E7 if Boeing decides to go that way.

Not including Glare, composites will make up about 22 percent of the A380 by weight, according to Airbus. Glare, which provides about a 15 to 30 percent weight savings over aluminum, is a glass fiber, reinforced aluminum composite. Much of the upper fuselage skin of the A380 will be made of Glare.

Boeing has previously said it probably won’t use Glare on the 7E7.

Boeing late last year abandoned development of the sonic cruiser in favor of the 7E7, which is expected to be as much as 20 percent more fuel-efficient than today’s jetliners such as the 767. But in addition to engine improvements, some of that efficiency gain will come from the use of new materials.

In an interview earlier this year, Walt Gillette, head of 7E7 development for Boeing, said aluminum makers wanted a crack at the 7E7. Some makers of aluminum had showed Boeing new advanced alloys that met Boeing’s weight and strength requirements for the 7E7, Gillette said.

In order to perform as well as composites, the new aluminum alloys need to be about 20 to 30 percent stronger that what is currently available.

“”We are having a great competition between aluminum companies and composite companies,”” Gillette said at the time.

The composite companies have apparently won, although sources said that if Boeing encounters technical problems on a composite 7E7 it could still always use aluminum. It’s not clear, however, how that might affect the efficiency gains.

Boeing has said it hopes to name its key 7E7 suppliers and partners later this year. It already has technical agreements with some of the world’s leading composite makers.

John Triplett, director of Structural Composites in Frederickson, near Tacoma, appears confident that a new moving-line manufacturing process will be used for the 7E7’s tail and wings. If so, Triplett anticipates that the tail of the new airplane would be made in Frederickson, a state-of-the-art center that produces the aluminum wings for all Boeing models except the 717 — as well as the composite tails for the 777 and the wing tips for the 767. Within the year, the new moving-line process will be applied to the current 777 tail-assembly line in the plant, which will serve as a proving ground for the 7E7.

But the Frederickson composites facility is not large enough to manufacture 7E7 wings. Instead, Triplett said, wings would likely be outsourced to a major global risk-sharing partner and Boeing would turn over its new process to that supplier.

Any partner given the wing work would have to contribute a hefty sum of development money, which Boeing has made a precondition for major participation in the 7E7 program. Sharing the work would also help secure airplane sales in a key overseas market.

Though Triplett wouldn’t comment on where the wing work might go, Japan is the most likely candidate, having the capacity to do complex manufacturing, expertise in composites and a large jetliner market that Boeing dominates and wants to keep.

In case the 7E7 is built elsewhere, managers from the fabrication division have been assessing options for shipping components from Frederickson out of state via the Port of Tacoma or rail.

Liz Otis, vice president and general manager of Boeing’s Fabrication division, said while it is “”too soon to conjecture”” how much of the 7E7 her division would build, the program would bring together suppliers “”who have a great deal of both knowledge and financial wherewithal.””

“”We’ll carve out a much different and more evolved relationship with our suppliers,”” she said. “”There’s going to have to be a greater level of trust and sharing amongst these partners so we get the best answer for The Boeing Company.””

“”The vision seems awfully short-term,”” said Charles Bofferding, executive director of the Society of Professional Engineering Employees in Aerospace. “”By allowing an outside equity partner, you mortgage your future for a cash inflow now. That’s a way to get today’s product to market, but it isn’t the way to grow in the future.””

Sending wing manufacturing overseas — particularly an innovative process — raises the bar of technology transfer.

“”If you can outsource the wings, you can outsource anything,”” Bofferding said. “”It’s a scary and slippery slope to step onto to start outsourcing core competencies. Wing design is certainly one of them.””

But Boeing managers view global outsourcing as simply a necessity given the cutthroat competition with Airbus and the historic industry downturn. The new plane would enter service with airlines in 2008, provided that the Boeing board of directors gives the green light to begin offering the plane to potential customers. That decision is expected late this year or early next.

Boeing is talking with airlines about the configuration, size and range of its new plane. It probably will seat 200 to 250 passengers in three classes.

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