777X: Why it’s not a composite fuselage, and going with a derivative for the 737

Boeing defends 777X aluminum fuselage, reads the headline from Bloomberg News, reporting from the Paris Air Show.

During the pre-Paris Air Show media briefings by Boeing, we asked Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of aircraft development, why Boeing didn’t go with an all-new fuselage. His answer:

“Our job is to harvest the investments in technology we’ve made over the last 10 years and translate those into value for our customers and value for Boeing,” said. The 787 required a new fuselage cross section compared with the 767, so Boeing had to go with all new tooling anyway and the composite fuselage was the result. The 777 fuselage cross-section remains unchanged, so the decision was made to harvest the hard-won 787 technology but retain a metal fuselage.

Undecided is whether the fuselage will be traditional metal alloys or new alloys.

The same is true in deciding to re-engine the 737 rather than proceeding with a new design.

“It’s really about harvesting those technology investments [from the 787], Fancher said. “The time it would take to do a new small airplane in the single aisle market vs the time it would take to bring to market that is very competitive against our adversary, it’s a very cost-effective decision to do a derivative.

“On the wide body side of the equation, we made big investments and pushed technology forward on the 787. We’ve made huge investments in technology. It was a long, hard road. But the investments paid off. We need to continue to harvest those investments and apply them going forward in the most cost effective way we can. Going forward, offering derivative airplanes that are able to offer 20% more fuel efficiency to the market place by harvesting the technology investments we’ve made today, that sounds like a great business plan to me and that’s why we’re doing derivatives. It’s about value to the market place in the most cost effective way.”

Elizabeth Lund, VP and GM of the 777 program, and Jason Clark, director of manufacturing, explained that continuing to upgrade the current 777 is key for an airplane that is the “flagship” for many airlines.

“The Triple 7 is a huge part of the Boeing franchise. We are deeply committed to it,” Lund said. “The 777 has a departure reliability of 99.4%, the highest of any twin-aisle aircraft today. There are many more investments you can’t see. You can’t see the things that have been done. In the last couple of years we’ve added international connectivity to the airplane. We’ve added the antennas and capabilities so the flying public can stay connected over the oceans all the time and not just over land.

“We’ve improved our navigation links, which allows real-time changes to be uploaded to the airplane to change flight plans through the system instead of verbal conversations as it has been done through the years.”

Lund said the 777-300ER is qualified to operate with 330 minute ETOPS. Only one airline, Air New Zealand, is flying 330 minute ETOPS.

Continuous improvements have reduced the empty weight of the airplane today by 1,000 pounds compared with three years ago.

“We’ve reduced our maintenance costs. We’ve offered a full sweep of service and maintenance capabilities, including things like airplane health monitoring on the airplane as well,” Lund said. “We invest for three primary reasons. One is to reduce the cost of the airplane. Two is to meet the needs of our customers. We spend a lot of time with our customers understanding the market, doing technology development so that we understand the future market needs. The third area is to do some investment where it makes sense is that if there are technologies or applications that we can implement early to prove out for the Triple 7X as we continue to move into that.”

Clark said Lean manufacturing has improved efficiencies and reduced costs.

“Going to moving line and Lean reduced parts shortages by 57% on 777 line. Our quality continues to improve year end and year out. It gets down to improved productivity,” he said. “If we are going to have the rate flexibility that the market demands of us, we were going to have to look at the production system differently.”

Competitive advantage is no longer just about the platform, Clark said. It’s about the entire supply chain and production system.

“Lean is the basis of our production methods. When you look at some of the investments we are starting to make it’s about taking it to the next level. This isn’t a conversation for doing it for automation or technology just for technology’s sake. It’s really about the right balance. It’s also about the ability to allow the customer to differentiate the product. We are looking at elements that allow us to provide the differentiation.”

22 Comments on “777X: Why it’s not a composite fuselage, and going with a derivative for the 737

  1. – “It won’t be that bad. I think we’re going to be in decent shape,” Conner said of the planes’ weight differential. “We still believe we have operating economics that will be better.”

    That is a rather weak statement. Not one to entice sales. The truth is that for an aircraft of that size a composite fuselage would offer substantial benefits. Much more so than for an aircraft like the NSA for example.

    • Truth is, Composite do not offer massive weight savings in most general applications.
      After all is said and done; lightning strike, defects, BVID and manufacturing are taken into account – you end up at much the same point. is the 787 much lighter than metal a/c?

      It is only in combining metal and plastics (and any other material you wish to mention) that you can really get ahead.
      Also, the weight of an a/c has long passed being the most important improvement. It’s just part of the overall lifecycle cost.

  2. With Boeing selling points, the A350 Mk1 would have been a huge success. Same fuselage as the A330 = metal is the best option.
    They have very simple points. Too simple in my opinion.

    • I was thinking the same way. We will see how much pressure the airlines built up to get an all new aircraft – 777XWB

      • a/c volume grows with the square of fuse diameter, floor space only linearly (untill you add additional floors – double deck 777XWB anyone?). Why lug around all that empty space.

      • I don’t think airlines have to pay much for volume. They pay for fuselage surface and other things. Surface grows linear to fuselage diameter. Just the frontal surface of an aircraft would grow quadratically increasing the diameter. A 10 abreast comfortable seating and a 11 abreast high density seating could be a good answer to Airbus.

      • “A 10 abreast comfortable seating and a 11 abreast high density seating could be a good answer to Airbus.”

        That’s exactly what I’m been thinking about as well. 🙂

        Only difference being that I would put a short twin-aisle (2-3-2 in Y) upper deck on the forward fuselage.

    • The difference is not in what you use but in who uses it 😉

      As a select poster here is adamant to point out Airbus can’t shine, .. ever.
      All the light comes from Boeing’s rear 😉

  3. Guess it will depend on what the customers think, wondering if there will be a re-run of the A350 Mk1 (as birdy suggests), or if airlines will buy big.

  4. Going all-composite on the fuselage would save weight, but the investment is rather huge. Additionally, it is a new aircraft. There still is the option of doing some high stress parts in composite. The B777-300ER has a fuselage of roughly 40t. 5% weight reduction could be expected, but requires effort. 10% appears a bit exaggerated. There is also the matter of cost, and tooling.

  5. Bloomberg: “Boeing Co. (BA) defended the use of traditional aluminum for the fuselage of its upgraded 777.”

    How about Aluminium-Lithium, a la CSeries, for the fuselage? Al-Li offers today a weight saving of approximately 10% over “traditional aluminium”. The Boeing engineers had considered Al-Li when the original 777 was designed, but Mulally rejected it on the ground that the new alloy was, for various reasons, less practical than conventional aluminium; and the result is that the 777 is flying today with less than 400 pounds of the material. But the aluminium producers have steadily improved the product since that time in order to remain competitive with composite materials. To the point where Al-Li might actually be the material of choice for the fuselage on a smaller airframe. But on a larger fuselage I think CFRP would still be lighter.

    • Ah, the irony. Hopefully this (Aluminium) lithium fuselage thing doesn’t give more headaches like the lithium batteries. 🙂

  6. Ironical ,B now goes for Al Li alloy (most probably) for 777 X; while A has a composite fuselage, though with panels and rivets. B must have learnt something from 787 composite barrels ,we hope . The economics will do the talking in the market place. Clearly they do not wnat to invest in a new barrel tech for the 777 . Some kind of role reversal I suppose, between A and B.
    AL alloys the only hope for 777X in terms of weight savings of the fuselage- apart from the bigger 787 type of wing.
    That is why there is so much of talk of “harvesting” 787 technology -I think , the returns are more in the learning curve , avoiding mistakes and better project controls ie management processes -than any thing major in terms of tech. Low investment , possibly lower returns and in my view, lower market dominance unlike 777 300ER ; and sharing the spoils of the wide body market with the other guy. Safe than sorry approach.

  7. I assume they want to keep the costs low? The plane is already getting a new wing and engine afaik, with a composite fuselage, they might as well not call it a 777 derivative and just go for an all new plane/

  8. Tom Bucceri :
    They’re not as bad as “game changer.”

    I agree. While we’re at it, let’s include the “bidness-speak” gem “Going Forward”. BTW, perhaps we could replace the “bidness-speak” word “Harvest” with the term “Milk”.

  9. Pingback: “We’ll be in a constant state of development for the next 10 years:” Boeing’s Fancher | Leeham News and Comment

    • The effective floor areas for the A350-1000, 777-9X and A380-800 are, respectively, 315m2, 345m2 and 545m2. When we look at the size differentials as measured in effective floor area, the 777-9X is about 10 percent larger than the A350-1000, while the A380-800 is about 73 percent larger than the A350-1000 and 58 percent larger than the 777-9X. Hence, the 777-9X is IMO way too close to the A350-1000 in order for it to fit “nicely in between”. An aircraft with a floor area of around 414m2 would fit smack bang in the middle of the A350-1000 and A388 size range. Incidentally, that’s the size of the 747-8I. The Intercontinental has about 31 percent larger floor area than the A350-1000, while the A388 has about about 32 percent larger floor area than the 747-8I.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *