Digital 'rollout' showcases new Boeing 787 airplane

EVERETT - A powerful computer system that simulates the assembly of Boeing Co.'s new 787 Dreamliner cut typical costs by about 20 percent and trimmed a full year from production, officials said Wednesday.

Leaders of Boeing's 787 program showed off the digital assembly line in a "virtual rollout" of the airliner, which is scheduled for its first test flight next summer and for delivery to airlines in 2008.

The fuel-efficient new jet has given Boeing an advantage over troubled European rival Airbus SAS, which just this week formally launched a wide-bodied jet designed to compete with the 787.

Boeing has 435 firm orders for the new 787, and deliveries are booked until late 2013. Mike Bair, the 787 program chief, said Boeing is surprised demand has stayed so strong.

"We kind of anticipated that people would start losing interest as the delivery dates get out there to 2013, and 14 and 15," Bair said. "But the activity in the marketplace just continues unabated."

The digital assembly system, designed by French company Dassault Systemes, allows Boeing engineers and contractors to make sure their products will fit together nearly perfectly before any parts are even shipped to Boeing's assembly plants.

It has even helped improve worker safety, revealing such details as how far a mechanic would have to stretch to reach a particular bolt.

Such an advanced computer system is a first for Boeing. The company has done digital design before, but the new assembly mock-ups have prevented thousands of errors in the manufacturing process.

For example, workers found that some electronic components didn't have enough room to fit in the space they were given during a simulation, allowing engineers to redesign the space well before actual assembly.

"As a former manufacturing engineer, I couldn't imagine ever doing it the way we used to do it," said Scott Strode, vice president of 787 production.

The two-engine 787 will deliver better fuel economy than older four-engine jets in the same size category. As fuel prices rise, the fuel-efficiency sales pitch has grown more persuasive.

The 787 has been struggling to reach its target weight, and Boeing is pushing to trim extra pounds. The company still expects to have the 787 at its target weight in time for the first delivery.

Bair said engineers are evaluating individual parts for extra pounds, and continuing to switch some aluminum components to titanium.

The company has been looking for ways to speed up production starting in 2010, but Bair said it won't be clear precisely how to speed up the pace until workers get experience assembling the planes.

"We're waiting a little bit until we get some parts under our belts before we make a final decision," he said.

Also on Wednesday, Boeing announced a name for the converted 747-400 freighters that will ferry large 787 parts from overseas suppliers. The bulky plane will be known as the Dreamlifter.