Boeing's Flight Plan - InformationWeek

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Boeing's Flight Plan

To craft its next flagship, Boeing is getting custom features from its design-software vendor. Next, suppliers need to get on board

In the 14 years since Boeing Co. last designed a flagship commercial aircraft, a lot has changed. For one thing, the aircraft maker is betting its future that airlines want a more fuel-efficient plane, not just a bigger one. And the company believes it can design its new 7E7 Dreamliner for as little as half the cost of its last flagship plane.

To accomplish that, Boeing will use--and insist key suppliers use--software that lets designers around the world electronically collaborate in designing every manufacturing process and every component, from wings to seat-back trays. Boeing also will ask longtime software supplier Dassault Systèmes to add features to the planning and design software to cope with its global supply chain. "We will work to suit exactly Boeing's needs," says Fabrice Roignot, Dassault Systèmes' Boeing account manager. "This is something avant-garde that we have never done with any other customer."

Boeing will expand use of Dassault Systèmes' version 5 Product Lifecycle Management from 1,000 licenses today to several thousand in the next few years--perhaps as many as 6,000 at a cost of as much as $120 million, one analyst estimates. (The companies decline to discuss the contract cost.) The rollout will include Dassault Systèmes' Catia design software; Enovia, the tool to manage design data; and Delmia, which simulates assembly and manufacturing processes. As many as 300 Dassault Systèmes employees will work at Boeing on the project.

Boeing plans to start production of the 7E7 in 2006 and aircraft to be in service by 2008. The company anticipates improved efficiency: Designers will use a single set of data, so it won't have to be reproduced for multiple purposes as in the past, and planners will be able to digitally simulate the plane's life cycle from design through production, a spokeswoman says. The ability to quickly model iterations of a design will reduce errors and redundant work in getting to the best design, according to Boeing.

Roignot says the aerospace company wants to cut both recurring and nonrecurring design and manufacturing costs by half compared with the 777, its last major commercial plane project.

Boeing is at a critical juncture. European aerospace rival Airbus S.A.S. has overtaken Boeing in commercial-plane deliveries, and the companies have different views of what airlines will want in their next generation of planes. Airbus is betting on a 550-seat aircraft called the A380, due in 2006. Boeing's 7E7 will be a 200- to 300-passenger jet designed to consume 20% less fuel than bigger jets and fly longer routes previously limited to larger planes.

The 7E7 represents a dramatic shift in how Boeing builds planes. The company, which used to design and build the bulk of its aircraft, will outsource 70% of the airplane to suppliers. That will require capabilities not in Dassault Systèmes' current software. Boeing asked Dassault Systèmes to better integrate the Catia, Enovia, and Delmia modules. So the software vendor created in Enovia a 3-D master file to serve as a single source for digital definitions across the suite. Boeing also needs custom tools to handle designs with composite material--rather than the typical aluminum--that will be used in 60% of the 7E7.

Collaboration capabilities in version 5 PLM haven't been built for the kind of cross-company, cross-continent networking Boeing requires, says Michael Burkett, research director for product-life-cycle management at AMR Research. "The Enovia product has typically been in the domain of the engineer in a workgroup environment," he says. "They want it to scale to a global environment."

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