What Dreamliners are made of

Air New Zealand will be the first airline in the world to take delivery of the new model of Boeing's Dreamliner - dubbed the "seven late seven" after years of costly delays. Aviation reporter Grant Bradley went to the United States to check it out

Air New Zealand is getting the next model of the plane, the 787-9, a stretched version with greater range and passenger capacity than the 787-8.
Air New Zealand is getting the next model of the plane, the 787-9, a stretched version with greater range and passenger capacity than the 787-8.

In steamy South Carolina, Boeing is cooking up a big part of the future of air travel.

In a near-new factory in Charleston, long strands of carbon fibre are impregnated with resin and then baked in a superheated autoclave or pressure cooker for eight hours to make the rear sections of 787 Dreamliner fuselages.

The materials are widely known in the aviation industry; just how Boeing strings them together, the temperature they're baked at and how critical lightning conducting copper mesh is inlaid into the composite remains the aviation giant's secret.

In the gleaming new plant, described by one local as "Fort Knox," Boeing is concerned about rivals from China, Russia, Brazil and Europe copying the process that it says gives it a competitive advantage. During a factory tour by journalists, five minders ensure they don't photograph anything that could give away Boeing's secret sauce from this historic city in the American South.

"We have invested a tremendous amount in this programme. To give that away to others who don't have it hands a competitive advantage to them," says Jack Jones, Boeing's South Carolina vice-president and general manager.

Intellectual property agreements with the company's many suppliers are "heavy", he says.

The composite material is also used on the wings so instead of hundreds of sheets of aluminium bolted on to a framing with tens of thousands of metal fasteners the largely composite plane is lighter, stronger and more durable.

Lighter aircraft mean big savings for airlines struggling with consistently high fuel prices, but passengers notice the difference too.

Extra fuselage strength allows planes to have much bigger windows, optimised cabin pressure and higher humidity - more pleasant for long haul flights - because carbon fibre doesn't corrode like metals do.

The plane has more electrical power - 1.5MW of it - instead of mechanical systems and this helps make the Dreamliner what it is, cutting edge, but like most pioneering engineering feats, a nightmare at times.

Much of the work was outsourced around the world, aimed at saving money, sharing the risk - and helping garner major orders in suppliers' home countries such as Japan - but supply chain breakdowns initially led to major delays and billions of dollars of cost overruns for Boeing, which doesn't get paid until it delivers planes.

Some parts literally didn't fit and the plane earned the unwelcome nick name "the seven late seven" as frustrated airlines waited up to four years for planes they'd planned their fleets around.

Boeing's Mark Jenks was around from the the beginning, working on what was known initially as "Project Yellowstone", launched in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks as financially strapped airlines looked for mid-size planes that were ultra-efficient.

Back in the plane-maker's main manufacturing base near Seattle, a meeting room looks out at over one of six giant hangar bays in this, the biggest building by volume in the world, apparently capable of fitting Disneyland within its perimeter.

Four 787s, nose to tail, move up the assembly line at the rate of seven to 10 a month, which he describes as "pulsing". At times in the past it was barely alive and Jenks, now vice-president of 787 aeroplane development talks candidly about the "ugliness" and struggles of the past.

"Clearly we learned a lot. New aeroplanes are really tough; whenever you do something of that magnitude you're going to learn things," he told the Weekend Herald.

Though he would do some things differently if he could wind the clock back, Jenks sticks by the outsourcing concept - it just needed more oversight and more direct Boeing involvement at the design stage of components.

"I still think the basic model is pretty good, but clearly we didn't hit the sweet spot immediately so we've made adjustments."

Air New Zealand is getting the next model of the plane, the 787-9, a stretched version with greater range and passenger capacity than the 787-8. The project is back on track and is moving up the assembly line, if years late. "There are some things we absolutely do differently, in fact, we have done them differently on the dash-9," says Jenks.

Despite the delays and recent high profile battery problems, with a few notable dropouts - for their own financial reasons - airlines have hung in with orders for the plane with a list price of around $200 million. Orders swelled to 920 aircraft over the past 10 days with the official launch of a super-stretched 10-series of the plane.

The Charleston plant is just two years old and, like most everything associated with the Dreamliner project, it has broken the mould and been controversial, staffed in the deep south by a non-union labour force a continent away from the Boeing's tribal manufacturing home, the union stronghold of Seattle in the Pacific north-west.

Tax breaks helped seal the deal to lure Boeing here to buy one of its struggling suppliers around the time of a crippling strike in 2008.

Workers in Seattle were worried and remain uncomfortable about the move. Machinists union Local 751 spokeswoman Connie Kelliher tells the Herald: "I've been here 30 years and I've seen them go across the street and around the world.'

"No one here was very happy that we didn't get a bigger piece to be manufactured here - that was the initial reaction - but since then the members have been doing everything they can to make sure that plane gets delivered as quickly as possible."

She says it was experienced Seattle workers who helped solve the problem with Japanese-made batteries. "The good news is the members here have the skills and expertise to fix the problems that were imported from around the world. With the grounding, the members were again the ones who were helping fabricate the battery boxes that solved the problem. If there's a problem on an aeroplane, you want our members to fix it."

In Charleston, Jones is doing everything he can to ensure his 6000-plus workers don't become members of any union. There's a strong corporate culture, including compulsory wear of Boeing-issue T-shirts every day except Friday when workers can show their football and Nascar allegiances.

The company has already invested $1 billion and has announced it will spend the same amount again in a state that had a high unemployment rate.

Production is stepping up in Charleston where Jones says Boeing took something of a punt.

"Building aeroplanes is not for the faint-hearted - you can't have mistakes at 35,000 ft."

Grant Bradley travelled to Charleston courtesy of Boeing and Air NZ

- NZ Herald

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