The enormous success of the Boeing 787 may create one of its biggest potential problems: obtaining tremendous supplies of ultra-light materials.
Capacity to produce composites must double to meet projected demand for the Dreamliner over the next five years. The super-light Dreamliner also requires significant amounts of titanium.
Boeing formalized a joint venture last Friday with Russia's VSMPO-Avisma, the world's most important titanium producer, to manufacture components for the Dreamliner.
Boeing has a partial ownership position in Ural Boeing Manufacturing (UBM), which is 66 percent owned by Russian arms exporter Rosoboronexport. Pressed titanium components made by UBM will be finished at a Boeing factory in Portland, OR. Russia has already invested $5-6 million in a new plant to make the parts in the Urals. Boeing is now completing the acquisition of equipment that will make the components. Startup is expected in late 2008. UBM is also a major supplier of titanium components to Airbus.
In an interview with Design News, Boeing’s chief materials maven Alan Miller brushed off concerns about relying on a Russian source for titanium. Miller said that Boeing has done a lot of collaborative work in developing new high-strength alloys in collaboration with Russian titanium experts.
Boeing’s alliance with the Russian titanium industry has been growing since the early 1990s. As of 2008, VSMPO-Avisma will become Boeing’s biggest titanium supplier, moving ahead of US companies TIMET and RMI Titanium. As part of the deal, Boeing is helping develop Russia’s aircraft production capabilities.
Boeing is also buying 4,300 metric tons of titanium mill products through 2009 from the Titanium Industry of China. Annual output of titanium in China may rise to 100,000 metric tons by 2010 from 19,000 metric tons in 2006, and eventually reach 150,000 metric tons.
Boeing must invest hundreds of millions of dollars more this year than originally planned to keep pace with booming demand for the Dreamliner. R&D spending is projected to reach $3.7 billion this year, up from the previous estimate of between $3.2 billion and $3.4 billion.
Based on current production capabilities, the Dreamliner is virtually sold out until 2013.