Design: Teamwork lifts Boeing towards 777th heaven: Client involvement ensures new model is made to order

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The Independent Online
ONE YEAR from now, the first Boeing 777 will climb into the skies above Seattle to begin flight-testing. 'The 777 is right on target,' reported Alan Mulally, Boeing's vice-president, as potential customers gathered at last month's Paris air show.

The news would certainly have pleased the 12 airlines that have so far ordered 130 of the aircraft, for the development programme of the 777 has been like no other aircraft before it.

Boeing recognised in the late 1980s that it needed to develop a wide-bodied aircraft in the 300-plus passenger range to fill the gap between its 767 and 747 models, said Ron Ostrowski, 777 director of engineering.

Used to leading the way in the airline industry, Boeing had woken up to the fact that it was now third in the market behind McDonnell Douglas's MD11 (the new version of the DC10) and Airbus Industry's 340. The new aircraft had to be more attractive than competitors' models - and avoid the glitches in the company's last new model, the 747-400, which involved assigning 300 engineers to sort out its bugs once the aircraft had entered service.

A two-pronged strategy emerged, explained Mr Ostrowski. First, Boeing would embrace the concept of 'simultaneous engineering', designing and refining the aircraft with customers, designers and manufacturing managers working hand in hand. Eight airlines, including British Airways, joined a programme to define their 'dream aircraft'.

Second, the new model would be entirely designed using advanced computer techniques, including 'building' the aircraft's mock-ups inside the computer rather than physically, as before. Mock-ups are extensively used in the industry to ensure parts actually fit together and that components such as spars, struts and pipes do not try to occupy the same space. 'Digital pre-assembly', as Boeing termed it, had never been carried out on this scale before.

On both counts, surprises lay in store. Boeing's initial concept for the 777 was essentially a stretched 767, in order to re-use that aircraft's fuselage. The company was nonplussed when the eight co-designing airlines plumped for an aircraft 25 per cent wider, making the 777 only 10 inches narrower than the 747 jumbo.

The airlines also came up with a demand for unprecedented interior flexibility, requiring galleys and lavatories to be mobile so that they could slide up and down the aircraft's interior. That way, said Mr Ostrowski, airlines could alter the division of seating between first, business and economy classes in order to maximise revenues.

Boeing is an engineering-led company, but its 777 strategy called for it to act as a market-led one. Nevertheless, design co- operation has played a vital part in the 777's success; figures released at the Paris air show revealed that it has already won a 78 per cent market share.

Barry Gosnold, British Airways' senior liaison executive at Boeing, said: 'We don't have to play this game of Chinese whispers any more. Previously, we never got to see the designers - now we're working with them.' BA engineers have been responsible for several innovations in the aircraft's design, including a different way of laying out a galley in order to fit in an extra 12 seats. They have also helped to sort out 'bugs' that would otherwise have only become apparent in use.

The advanced computer techniques have also played a major role. Some 2,200 engineers' work-stations are linked to eight IBM mainframes. From this, there are further connections to Boeing factories and suppliers across the United States and in Japan. This computing power is needed to run CATIA, an advanced 3D computer- aided design system originally developed by Dassault in France.

Not only can the 777's several hundred thousand individual parts be designed more efficiently and fitted together electronically to ensure there are no clashes, but maintenance activities can be simulated through a computer mechanic. 'CATIA-man' , as he is termed, recently found that it would be impossible for human mechanics to reach far enough to change the bulb in the navigation light on the roof of the aircraft.

This technique has been combined with a team-based approach to CATIA's output - designs being reviewed not just by specialist aircraft designers, but assembly workers, maintenance people and purchasing managers.

Again, said Mr Ostrowski, the result was that potential problems were caught at the outset, rather than when the aircraft was in production. When the 777 finally takes to the air next year, it seems that a new approach to aircraft development will also take off: Boeing has just announced that 30 airlines are working with it on a successor to the best-selling 737.

(Photograph omitted)