The only thing surprising in the Dreamliner delay announced yesterday is that anyone is surprised. As reported here in an award-winning online package, this project is one of the most demanding ever taken in terms of technology and supply chain. The first flight will be delayed six or so months? The Airbus A380 is delayed two years, and it wasn’t a major leap forward. Everything about the Dreamliner is daunting, particularly the brave jump into full-boded composites technology, a move that Boeing bet the whole ranch on. Boeing is sole sourced on the carbon fiber and prepregs that make up the composites. Toray had a fiber capacity of 7,300 metric tons in 2003 and 13,900 metrics tons earlier this year. Huge expansions continue, and Toray’s capacity will approach, if not exceed 20,000 metric tons by 2010, based on Design News estimates. Even more daunting is the effort to automate, and dramatically speed up composite manufacturing processes. As Boeing composites guru Al Miller told me earlier this year: “The technology area still playing out is tooling. Left to its own devices, composite tooling can be fairly elegant or—if you’re not paying attention to it—it can be very clumsy and heavy…We had to meet with our technology partners up front to make sure the technology was mature enough to meet our production schedules.” The builders of the giant tools to make the composite structures are virtually a cottage industry —and one that did not even exist two years ago. The examples go on and on. And what’s more, Boeing, like many other leading edge OEM’s has pushed a huge amount of the development out to its supplier partners. That’s smart, but also risky. I for one applaud Boeing for its efforts, and hope the TV news readers and other headline-focused media don’t shake this tree too hard. In many ways this may be the future of American product development.
Most of the new 3D printers and 3D printing technologies in this crop are breaking some boundaries, whether it's build volume-per-dollar ratios, multimaterials printing techniques, or new materials types.
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