Alenia Aeronautica, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., and Spirit Aerosystems Inc., these heavy-hitters are not just building the fuselage or wing box on The Boeing Company's landmark Dreamliner 787 aircraft. This trio of suppliers, along with 40 other global partners, is taking part in a ground-breaking development effort. Not only are they sharing the risk and design burden for their piece of the 787, they’re also participating in a virtual development world where every aspect of the plane and its manufacturing processes is designed, created and tested digitally before anything physically moves into production.
Boeing’s dress rehearsal for the brave new world of virtual development was the 777 program, the precursor plane to the Dreamliner built in the early 90s. With the 777, Boeing and its long-time software partner Dassault Systemes pioneered the concept of digital mockup, using Dassault’s CATIA 3D CAD software to design and model all of the plane’s approximately 10,000 parts on the computer instead of building physical prototypes. Based on their success and spurred by Dassault’s evolving Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) product line, Boeing decided to push the idea even further. With the 787 Dreamliner program, it leveraged a common digital environment to help a dispersed global design team more effectively collaborate and leverage a single 3D product definition throughout all phases of the 787’s lifecycle.
“As the first airplane with a full 3D product definition, we were really focused with the 777 on how we could improve quality and reduce the cost of putting the initial product together,” says Kevin Fowler, vice president of systems integration, processes and tools for Boeing, in Seattle. “But an airliner is something that’s in service for a long time — typically 20 to 30 years. We knew we had tremendous value in the 3D model-based definition and we’re trying to leverage that across the entire lifecycle of the product.”
Taking a lifecycle approach meant Boeing could leverage the same 3D product definition for other important aspects of the plane-building process—a Web-based application, for example, that lets airline customers configure the interior selection of their custom-built plane or an illustrated parts catalog that would be used when the 787 planes were in the field to find replacement parts for service. With the 777 and previous aircraft, all of these post-design tasks were recreated manually, often involving complex translations to share data between incompatible CAD packages.
“(The lifecycle approach) is important to the airline customer because they get a much higher quality product and it facilitates their ability to get the data they need to use the product effectively in service,” says Fowler. “It’s important to Boeing because it allows us to most efficiently design and manufacture a product with the highest quality and it reduces the amount of data translations and manual processes.”
Having a common development environment and set of design processes for all the far-flung partners was the lynchpin in Boeing’s 787 design strategy and another way to reduce the reliance on data translation. From the beginning, the Boeing team recognized it needed a common development environment for a project of this magnitude. For one, it would help avoid the difficulties and errors introduced when trying to exchange information between different CAD tools, Fowler says. For another, it was the only way to ensure the global team of partners would have access to the same product definition data and be able to collaborate effectively on a 24/7 basis from their various locales.
Establishing a global team of partners responsible for the design was a business model shift necessary for creating the most competitive product, Fowler says. In the past, Boeing designed 70 percent of the aircraft and only produced 30 percent. With the Dreamliner 787, it handed off design responsibility to key suppliers, focusing instead on overall integration and configuration of the plane. “We discovered that when people doing the design are not close to manufacturing, trying to make improvements to the product is a long cycle,” he says. “If those people building parts are also responsible for designing parts, you end up with a more maintainable and lower-cost product.”
Thus was born the Global Collaborative Environment (GCE), a set of computer and networking capabilities made available via the Web to every member of the 787 team, no matter what their location. The anchor of the GCE is Dassault’s PLM suite: Catia V5 for CAD design, the Delmia digital manufacturing package for simulating how parts and components are manufactured on the factory floor, and Envoia, used to maintain the master repository of all information on the 787. There are also Boeing-developed applications comprising the GCE, as well as additional third-party programs for simulation and other specific design tasks. Accompanying the GCE is the Commonality Matrix, a document outlining standards for business processes related to development, along with specifications for more than 100 computer applications and training documents – all accessible to partners through a Web-based portal.
In the past, Boeing would co-locate suppliers and partners in Bellevue, WA during the design stage to ensure consistency, but that approach wouldn’t work for a project of this global scale, Fowler says. “We wanted to get the best collection of people to create the best airplane, so we needed to look globally,” he says. “What you find is not only is it expensive, it’s not feasible to have everyone come and be located in one spot. It defeats the purpose of having designers close to manufacturing. We wanted something to enable us to work as one team and be virtually connected.”
Using the GCE and adhering to the Commonality Matrix is not optional for suppliers, Fowler says. Partner contracts mandate use of the standard environment and Boeing ensures everyone is up-to-date on the latest versions of the software by doing block point updates on a regular basis. Fowler says Boeing worked with partners to try to come up with an agreed-upon set of tools and processes for the program, yet even so, he admits there were bumps along the way.
“The concept of risk-sharing partners was a new business model for Boeing — they were asking (the people) they used to call vendors to come into the program and invest money … and many (of them) were reluctant to change processes,” says Fabrice Roignot, the Boeing account executive for Dassault, who works on the account along with a team of 90-plus people on a day-to-day basis. Dassault also has people in R&D solely focused on building enhancements to its software to Boeing’s specifications — for example, acomposites design capability for CATIA and Delmia — which eventually make their way into the mainstream platform.
While getting suppliers to change their way of working or to give up their preferred CAD tools is difficult, Boeing really didn’t have an alternative, according to Mike Burkett, vice president with AMR Research Inc., of Boston. History has shown using incompatible CAD systems on a project of this size and scale can lead to troubling delays, as illustrated by Boeing’s key rival, Airbus. Airbus was forced to delay its A380 next-generation aircraft by two years due to last-minute wiring problems that surfaced due to a global design team working with incompatible versions of their CAD software, also from Dassault. While Fowler says the decision to have a common Global Collaboration Environment was made far before the Airbus debacle, Burkett maintains Boeing had no other role model. “There wasn’t enough evidence at the time to not go this route,” Burkett says. “There were no good examples of companies using different systems being able to do global design collaboration.”
The world will know in fairly short order if Boeing has accomplished its goal of charting a new course. The company did a virtual rollout of the Dreamliner 787 last December, showcasing the plane and its manufacturing processes to the company and some partners entirely online, and is now in the final stages of putting together assemblies on its first production unit set for test flight July 8.
Being able to virtually simulate not just the parts, but the plane’s processes has been a great boon for Boeing, giving them more flexibility to make adjustments during the design phase. A year ago, for example, the chief pilot for the 787 was doing a virtual test flight and was able to see some issues related to fin control. Using the relational capabilities of Dassault’s V5 PLM suite, designers were able to evaluate 50 new possible fin configurations, test them and make the appropriate changes to the rest of the design in only about four weeks, Fowler says. With the old way of working, Boeing might have been able to evaluate three or four new fin configurations and it would have taken at least three or four months to do that, he says.
As a result of such benefits, Boeing has been able to shave one year off the development timeline for the Dreamliner 787, and Dassault’s Roignot says the cost savings associated with the effort have been on order of a 20 percent reduction. With the first plane currently in production, Fowler says parts are coming along nicely and Boeing is right on target with its development flight plan. “We’ve taken a very measured approach and we’re confident in our ability to put the product together,” he says. “For us, having that single source authority of all the CAD representation of the product is essential.”
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