Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011
Boeing’s groundbreaking and extensive use of plastics in the 787 Dreamliner – about half of the plane’s structure, including fuselage and wings, is made of composite materials such as carbon fiber reinforced plastics – has gotten much attention. By material weight, the plane is 50 percent composites, 20 percent aluminum, 15 percent titanium, 10 percent steel, and 5 percent other.
Much less discussed has been how the plane’s designers used the traditional advantages and strengths of composite plastics to create business advantages both for Boeing and for its customers. Indeed, they use those advantages well, for example:
Light weight: Weighing 30,000 to 40,000 pounds less than a similarly sized Airbus A330-200, a 787 Dreamliner uses 20 percent less fuel, a major cost saving for airlines. The plane’s CO2 emissions also are 20 percent less. Further helping the bottom line, airlines have about 45 percent more cargo space to sell.
High strength-to-weight ratio: The strength of the composites allows for the largest windows of any airliner, including those in planning. They are so big that those in center seats can see the horizon and therefore feel less queasy. The 787’s ceiling height is a full 8 ft, to lessen any claustrophobic feeling.
Consolidation of parts: The 787’s one-piece fuselage eliminates more than 40,000 fasteners compared with a conventional plane.
Fewer assembly steps: A Jumbo 747 needs a million holes drilled in its fuselage; the 787 needs less than ten thousand.
No corrosion: Plastic simply doesn’t corrode, ever. Boeing says maintenance costs are about 30 percent less than a conventional plane and the 787’s first major service is at 12 years.
The plane has a number of innovations not directly connected with the use of plastics. The “auto-dimming” windows from Gentex Corp. (Zeeland, MI) gradually darken at the touch of a button until they are black – no more sliding shade. And since the windows have no moving parts, they are easier to maintain.
Cabin lighting is by LEDs and softer on the eyes. The cabin air quality has been greatly upgraded. Cabin pressure is 6000 ft instead of the previous 8000 ft. Humidity is higher. Cabin air is filtered direct from the atmosphere and not drawn through the engine as previously. Passengers on the maiden flight praised the improved environment.
Thanks to its lighter weight, the 787 has the range (Tokyo to New York non-stop) of a Boeing 747, plus it gets great gas mileage – a tribute to those lighter but stronger plastics. Taking advantage of that advantage, ANA recently announced it would start a new route between Tokyo and Frankfurt using its 787s.
As usual, plastics could not get the credit deserved, even from Boeing people. They usually called the plastic parts carbon fiber composites or just composites. A reporter from The Telegraph (UK) who traveled on the ANA flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong quoted a Boeing representative who said, “Plastic is what you have on the dashboard of your car. This is not plastic.”
The Telegraph reporter quickly noted that the Boeing man’s protestations would be more convincing if one of the suppliers of “composite materials” wasn’t using ANA’s plastic water bottles to advertise the fact. In his video spot the reporter used the word plastic in the sense of something really brilliant. He merits at least a thank-you note.
P.S. Further proof that plastics are finding a place in commercial aircraft: Boeing’s earnest competitor Airbus (Toulouse, France) released photos of a partially assembled horizontal tailplane for its forthcoming A350 WXB model. And, Spirit AeroSystems has shipped the first fuselage panels (shown below) for the A350 WXB from its plant in Kinston, NC. Both components are made of plastic composites. Who knows what Airbus will call the material, but we’ll know the truth — it’s another plastic plane.