Bjorn’s Corner: New aircraft technologies. Part 25. Efficient development

August 11, 2023, ©. Leeham News: We have described a number of technological advances that can be used to make the next-generation airliners more efficient and, thus, more environmentally friendly.

Part of developing more efficient next-generation aircraft is to change the development process to be more efficient. The last Boeing aircraft, the 787, took 7.5 years from launch to entry into service, and Airbus A350 took 8.5 years.

The target is to reduce this by up to 50%, but how?

Figure 1. The Airbus A350 development schedule. Source: Airbus.

Airliner development history

The typical time to develop a new, clean-sheet airliner was seven years when Boeing and Airbus started the development of their latest airliners, the 787 and A350, with the Airbus A320 program (1981 to 1988) as an example.

Boeing had cut this cycle with about a year for the 777, which took around six years from frozen definition summer of 1989 to entry into service with United summer of 1995. With the 787 program, Boeing aimed to better this with a plan to EIS in late 2008 from an ANA launch order in April 2004.

The four-and-a-half-year 787 plan, budgeted at $7bn, morphed into a seven-and-a-half-year troubled development with ANA EIS in September 2011. Instead of $7bn, it had cost an estimated $15bn. The culprit was too many changes in how the project was managed and executed from a successful (but according to Boeing’s board, too expensive) 777 program.

Airbus took learnings from the 787 project problems and planned a less aggressive project, with fewer changes in project management and execution. From a mid-2006 launch order by Qatar Airways, the first A350-900 should be delivered to Qatar by mid-2014, Figure 1. The program had a budget of around $12bn. It became a January 2015 EIS in the end at an estimated $15bn.

Will these programs, the last clean sheet developments for Boeing and Airbus, set the scene for the next new airliner development from these companies?

A new, more efficient way to develop airliners

Boeing and Airbus realized after the 787 and A350 projects that development times of seven to eight years and costs of $15bn or more for a new airliner were too slow and too costly. And the changes Boeing made in the 787 project were not the way to go.

Both companies have since run numerous initiatives and programs to find ways to break the seven years typical period that, in the end, gets prolonged a year or two to master program problems.

As time is money for development programs, if you can’t shorten the development time, then you can’t halt the cost escalation or bring down the cost of new developments.

There have been articles in the trade press that hails new methods like “Model-Based Development, MBE” as the secret sauce that changes all this. It’s not that easy.

MBE is one of many techniques that have been tested in smaller projects to learn its characteristics and how much could be gained. But there are a number of other methods and tools changes that are needed to get an ever-increasing workhour expansion under control when developing and putting into service a new airliner.

What needs to change, and what can these changes bring?

We will look at new ways of working and managing aircraft development in the series and discuss what these can bring and where are the pitfalls for their implementation in large projects.

28 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: New aircraft technologies. Part 25. Efficient development

  1. Today the software is a big portion of the development and testing. The more systems and boxes that are connected to the aircrafts internet the more failure modes.

    • While its true in military aircraft, I have not seen the same issues in the Civilian sector.

      A lot of that code is written and while it needs modification per airframe, the basics are there, its not the cutting edge of development.

      Solid basis for not just the aircraft controls but all the systems can use what has come prior as a basis.

      The big issue is aerodynamics are a very mature industry and you have to go to different from Tube and Wing (Be it TBW or a BWB) and you still have to address the certification issues that they both throw into the mix.

      And how much are airlines willing or can risk in passenger acceptance?

  2. Airplaners ,
    Isn’t it apparent that easily activated manual/default modes are deriguer at this point ?

  3. That more efficiency and lower costs are needed for a new aircraft progam does not necessarily mean they’ll
    occur. Talk of digital design at one mfr. *so far* sounds like handwaving to me, and the supply chain
    for a new plane can’t be magicked into existence.

    We’ll see how it goes when someone finally launches one.

    • You design and manufacture it digitally but it is no assurance to meet specs and certify on budget and on time. Just look at the Boeing T-7A. Great start but then the details catch you and time/money flies away. The Lockheed X-59 migh have gone smoother but it is not an USAF certified fighter/trainer.

      • As I recall, “revolutionizing” production was Boeing’s claim with the 787, and we know how all that turned out.Hence, I think a bit of skepticism is in order for new claims of such. I fully agree that the devil is in the details-
        and there are alway details.

        • The 787 is a specail case as ex. GE bean counters tried to do Risk and revenue sharing with partners without detail control of all of them. Had Boeing hired some cheif engineers as well and gave them power over project managers it would not have had as many hickups

          • > The 787 is a specail case <

            No, the 787 is the most recent *actually existing* case for that company. Your accompanying argument is a tautology.

          • Recent hiccups in BCA/BDS execution don’t give me much confidence.

          • Claes:

            I don’t see Calhoun letting anyone do anything when he is not looking over their shoulders and he has no mfg experience, he is a bean counter.

            Two truisms: Never let programmers run a system and never have a bean counter in charge.

      • The Boeing T-7A was supposed to herald Boeing’s wonderful new approach to designing aircraft and lead the way for the Commercial sector. I sure hope they learned their lessons well after falling two years behind and booking over a billion dollars of losses on that program. Mind you, I don’t think ejection seats are a requirement for commercial aircraft, so that might help the cause.

        • pretty much the only thing that has been holding up the T-7A program is ejection seat issues, which are almost entirely down to the government directed ejection seat subcontractor’s inability to design a seat that didn’t break small pilot’s necks.

          the other issue is with the canopy shattering det cord not breaking the canopy into small enough chunks.

          the aircraft itself was ready to go for all pilots not at the extreme size ends of the envelope a couple years ago, but the government wouldn’t accept any aircraft for testing (by average sized pilots) until the ejection seats were suitable for 4’10, 90 lb women and 6’5 270 lb men.

          this was dumb on the USAF’s part because they could have done _all_ the testing except that requiring extreme sized pilots during the so far 2 year delay.

          • I believe pre-production T-7A have been released to the USAF for their testing (five if I remember correctly).

            That can occur despite the ejection seat issues.

            And digital design is reality going forward and its a good program to test it on (captive audience!).

            I believe is the lower end of the the weight spectrum and I do question how much you should have to design for the extremes (does the USAF have a height limit? ) Probably a weight chart they need to meet for fitness’s sake.

            But while DD has a major place, you still have to build things to see if the computers worked out aerodynamics correctly. And of course there is the controls software that has to work (but also it can be modified to overcome an issue)

  4. This is what I think:

    Is new Aircraft production Economics, and Efficiency important?
    It is very important, indeed

    But, because Aircraft Manufacturers, make possible the World we live in today, they make possible other companies to thrive, and they activate growth in many strategic sectors, I believe, a new aircraft development, does not always have to be profitable.

    I understand why, very often, Aircraft Manufacturers would need economic help from governments, to go ahead with some programs.

    Developing a brand new Aircraft, is probably the second or third, most difficult thing, we humans can make. The engineering, and expertise needed, to offer the World, what was impossible before, is very hard.

    • China has worked out how to make aircraft without a profit involved.

      How well that turns out?

      • Define “profit” in this context.

        Example: Company X moves production of product A from the USA to a low-income country. As a result, Company X’s earnings increase significantly. However, the move causes a hit to employment in the US, causing an increase in entitlement handouts. So, Company X gains, whereas the US taxpayer loses. What is the “profit” in this instance?

        Communism/socialism don’t have such issues.


    ‘The program was launched on 13 July 2008, the smaller A220-100 (formerly CS100) made its maiden flight on 16 September 2013, was awarded an initial type certificate by Transport Canada on 18 December 2015, and entered service on 15 July 2016 with launch operator Swiss Global Air Lines.’

    8 years. Nope.

    ‘On 14 June 1999, the E-Jet family was formally launched at the Paris Air Show. In early March 2004, the first E170 deliveries were made to LOT Polish Airlines.’

    Just under 5 years. Better.

    Maybe if there was some way someone could partner with Embraer and use their talent pool to….oh

  6. If one is going to change a way of working, in order to speed it up, you cannot do it in a “big bang” way. You have to take it nice and steady, one program at a time.

    Speed of development is often more about reducing the iterations teams have to go through to get past a particular milestone, and reduce the quantity of assurance carried out on dead-end work.

    You need a very slick team to get it “right first time”, which generally means having a team that’s got it “wrong first time” quite a lot, kept together, and finally it clicks. This showed up in A380, A350; the team made some absolute howlers in the dev of A380, got it right for A350.

    This is largely what Skunk Works achieved; they’d had a stable team built up in WW2, and they were able to follow their processes (because, they did have processes) quickly and efficiently whilst doing something radical. F117A – their final masterpiece – was the pinnacle of 30 years of young engineers working together and becoming old engineers, the prototypes cost <$30million, and the production run was (according to Ben Rich) way ahead of cost estimates to the extent he had to offer a refund to the Air Force.

    This is another aspect behind my favorite maxim, "Develop, or Die". Part of it is remaining at the top of the competition with ever improving product. Part of it is ensuring that you retain the ability to build something in the first place, keep the engineers and teams busy even if you're currently dominating the market.

    The car industry is an interesting comparison. Gordon Murray (he of McLaren F1 fame, and now has his own company) came up with a design methodology that would allow a car manufacturer to go from car shape / spec to production extremely quickly, largely by eliminating the design time / cost required to pass crash testing, and tooling time / costs. The construction method (tube frame chassis with composite in-filling panels) meant that it was easy to pass crash testing (by being very strong), and easy to set up a production line (automated tube mills are very effective).

    The result? The industry largely ignored it, being content to spend far more money on development required to be able to stamp out sheet steel monocoque chassis, to have long production runs of a design, confident that none of their competitors would change either.

    • While I fully agree on an experienced team, I don’t believe the Murray is any paragon for a new way to build.

      If it was the wave of the future, someone would have used it in mass production and they have not done so (and probably a dozen reasons). Mostly it could work for F1 but F1 is not the world of road cars.

      As I recall Murray had his own proving to do and the chassis had to be pressurized to test and or find cracked tubes.

      No disagreeing aircraft have more in common with F1 than they do with the various Jeep thingies we see on the road.

      Aircraft certification rules are in play as well as any tech you want to insert as Airbus found out with the Novel fuel tank for the A321-XLR (and Boeing should have been called on for the Lithium , battery absurdity of a test program in the 787).

      I believe it was a Colorado University that came up with a CRFP system for a car, huge weight savings, great MPG for a full sized SUV, no one grabbed it as the costs were also huge.

      In 10 or 20 years that could change but at the time, no.

      A good metric is the A350 construction method and the 787 Construction method, very different and still used CRFP.

      It will be interesting to see what method is used going forward with the A350 leading from what I can tell as it can be adapted to any shape and a 787 spun fuselage is limited to round.

      • Respectfully. Non round filament winding is easily achievable. Its not a roadblock. In 1981, the Naval Research Lab published their findings on winding Large ship hulls. Its the economics that get in the way, not the process limitations

    • There is lots of work between preliminary design/go ahead, to have a stable design that is cost and mass optimized while giving profitable production and high reliability in operation. Many think they are “home” after FAA/EASA certification but lots of work and cost remain (just ask Pratt&Whitney)

    • ‘The car industry is an interesting comparison. Gordon Murray (he of McLaren F1 fame…’

      Adrian Newey would like a word with you 🙂

      There’s another avid F1 fan in here, who also might jump in with a comment. We’ll see if he’s around.

      Go Fernando & Lance!

      • Adrian Newey is a GOD. The last time he took a gardening leave, he went to America’s Cup and pioneered Riblet film on aquatic structures. You will be playing catch up if he is on staff somewhere else.

    • Except that the MAX wasn’t ripe when it entered service: there was a subsequent 2-year grounding necessary to clean up loose ends left over from the original 6-year “development”. That makes a total of 8 years.

      For the MAX-7/10, that figure now stands at 12 years.

  7. Tax breaks in return for new BA factory:

    “The Boeing Co. wants to expand its footprint in the St. Louis region by a million square feet, 500 new employees and a $1.8 billion investment. But to do it, the company says it needs government subsidies.”

    “Company representatives and regional economic development boosters are now making their case for the tax breaks. The St. Louis County Council could consider them again on Tuesday.”

    “The project would include constructing multiple buildings and leasing space totaling a million square feet at two sites adjacent to St. Louis Lambert International Airport. But the company said it needs tax breaks from St. Louis County to be competitive as it competes for future contracts with the Department of Defense.”

  8. Here you go — new aircraft technologies are a walkover! 😉

    “Boom hires former Boeing engine executive and plans to produce engines in Florida”

    “Boom Supersonic has hired a Boeing propulsion veteran to lead development of the engine for its conceptual supersonic airliner and says it intends initially to produce the powerplants in Jupiter, Florida. Former Boeing executive Scott Powell has joined Boom as senior vice-president of the Symphony engine programme, the company said on 15 August.”


    “”We’ve made significant design progress on Symphony,” said Blake Scholl, founder and CEO of Boom. “Adding Scott’s leadership and experience overseeing certifications for a wide range of civil and military propulsion systems only further strengthens our path forward with Symphony. We’re thrilled to have him onboard.””

    “Prior to joining Boom, Powell spent 38 years at Boeing, which included four years as the Engineering Propulsion Leader for the Dreamliner leading to the 787-8/-9, responsible for propulsion system design, development, test, build, and business management. He also managed complete propulsion integrated product teams through design and development, qualification, certification, and flight testing for legendary airframes such as KC-46 Tanker, and Joint Strike Fighter. Most recently, he served as the Propulsion Integrated Product Team (IPT) Leader for the B-52J Commercial Engine Replacement Program.

    “”Boom understands the significant upside that can be achieved through an engine specifically customized for Overture,” said Scott Powell, Boom’s Senior Vice President of Symphony. “I’m inspired by the considerable progress already achieved with Symphony, and I look forward to working with the team on the propulsion system that will power the future of sustainable supersonic travel.””

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