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