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But it is the high-level, real-time collaboration with its design partners that is "the differentiator," says Griffin. It's key to how the trailing edge of the wings, and the place where the wings attach to the body, can be built halfway around the world from each other and still be parts of a safe and stable aircraft. Technology is the enabler of this kind of collaboration, which involves a significant amount of product lifecycle management across multiple countries. Boeing requires all its partners on the 787 to use an application called Catia, made by Dassault, and the plane is designed at a special online site, maintained by Boeing, called the Global Collaboration Environment.

Customers, including pilots and flight attendants, were asked to provide input before the design was handed off to design partners. The new midsize passenger jet, scheduled to begin production later this year, will have an outer shell made of carbon-fiber-reinforced plastic, known as composite, rather than the familiar aluminum skin used on previous generations of airliners. About half the plane's parts by weight will also be made of this advanced material, which will make it lighter and give the jet better fuel economy than its forebears. Passengers will notice a difference, too, because the super-strong composite exterior will allow the cabin to be pressurized at much lower altitudes than is possible with metal-skinned planes, resulting in a more comfortable ride. And key internal systems will depend on electronics, instead of on the hydraulic controls that have been used for decades.

The firm's partners got a master design that showed the general contours of the plane—they knew, for example, where the landing gear would attach, and how much space would be available for it when it folds up into the belly of the aircraft.

But Boeing didn't just turn its partners loose. "An airplane is a system of systems, with components that include thousands of parts," Griffin says. "You need tools that let you see the parts fit together. The data has to be created in the same format. You can't just tell someone to design parts and send them to us, and we'll put them together."

Actually, that's pretty much how collaboration used to be done. Prior to the 787, wood mock-ups of planes would be constructed to see if parts built by partners around the world would really fit together. Now, "clashes" between parts and whole sections show up easily on a computer screen before the part is even manufactured. "Quality is up, because the computer finds the mistakes," says Vought Aircraft's Broomall. "If there are two parts in the same space, or they don't fit together well, a big red blotch shows up on the screen. You don't have to put it together and say, 'Rats, that didn't work.' "

Finished designs are stored in another Dassault product, Enovia, which is also maintained by Boeing. "We are creating an enormous amount of digits in the descriptions of parts and engineering," Broomall says. "This is an enormous data-management task."

There have been other difficulties as well. "One of the technical challenges for collaboration has been to provide airtight information security," says Griffin. "In the aerospace industry we team with a company on one project and compete with them on another. But over the last few years, security technology has matured to the point where we can be assured of keeping information secure."

And so far, Boeing has not been able to standardize its collaboration techniques across its sprawling operations. "Today, the process is different for each program," says Griffin. "As we move the company to common processes and systems we are trying to reuse as much knowledge as possible across Boeing, but the partners are different each time and therefore the issues are different as well."

Boeing maintains ten multimedia rooms at the Everett complex for the use of collaboration teams, says John La Porta, a Boeing team leader. "They are open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day," he says. "It's always daytime somewhere." On a recent afternoon, meetings were underway between one group of engineers at Boeing and their peers at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd., in Japan, while another group worked with teams at Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. and Australia's Hawker de Havilland, a Boeing subsidiary. A visualization application developed by Boeing allows the teams to do real-time design reviews of complex geometry without any lag time as the models load. "The tone is cordial, it's engineers talking to engineers," says La Porta. Meetings are conducted in English, with sidebar conversations as needed in native languages around the world.

This article was originally published on 03-06-2006
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