Where Dreamliners are made

The 787 Dreamliner is the most advanced passenger plane ever and the first with an interior designed by passengers. As Norwegian gets its first delivery, we head to the Boeing factory near Seattle to see how it’s built

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, August 2013)

Eileen Dickson has been giving tours of Boeing’s Everett factory for the best part of 27 years and you suspect some of her many jokes might be recycled. “You could fit the Pentagon in the factory,” she says, “though we say Red Square when Russians come.”

It’s a gag that has legs, because you can fit just about anything in the factory near Seattle, which is the single biggest building in the world by volume. It’s so vast there was an urban myth a few years ago that it has its own ecosystem and clouds form in the roof of the hangar causing rain.

That’s not true, but it is true that more than 30,000 people work in the 13,400,000m3 space every day. The plant has its own adjacent stretch of freeway, a credit union, fire station, DVD rental shop, phone store and water treatment plant. There are six branches of Tully’s coffee shop (Seattle’s poor sister to Starbucks) and 19 cafeterias churning out 17,000 meals a day. If you look past the rows of off-hours workers playing ping pong, you occasionally see hangar doors the size of American football fields open to let some of the world’s most iconic aeroplanes rumble out into the open.

This is where they put together the hulking 747, the world’s first jumbo jet, as well as the mid-size 767 and 777 planes. But the big news at Everett is the 787 Dreamliner, another mid-range plane which is described as a “game-changer” by just about everyone I speak to on a two-day tour of Boeing’s facilities.

Boeing has solved the problem with the Dreamliner’s lithium-ion batteries, which grounded planes earlier this year – and the focus is now on what is simply an astonishing feat of engineering. The 1,200 or so mechanics, engineers, electricians and others currently working on the Dreamliner at Everett generally purr with approval at the mention of the name.

It’s not as big as the 747, and it looks like, well, a plane – but it’s what it does that counts. It uses 20 per cent less fuel than previous planes, largely because the traditional aluminium frame has been replaced with a composite of carbon fibre, aluminium and titanium.

If this sounds like aero-babble – and you do hear your fair share during a few days with Boeing – for you as a passenger, the point is this: as the 930 Dreamliners on order enter the market (there were 61 flying at the time of writing), long-haul flights will get more plentiful, cheaper and more comfortable.

It’s the last bit that will probably impress you the most. I flew on Norwegian’s first Dreamliner flight from Seattle to Oslo and it was  a different experience to any flight I’ve taken, notwithstanding the celebratory Champagne and seafood platter.

The cabin has futuristic blue mood lighting, which subtly changes colours until there’s a rainbow effect that admittedly recalls a 1970s porn movie. The windows are bigger; there’s more space; the air feels less stifling; and the touchscreen inflight entertainment system is like using an iPad instead of the hellishly fiddly video-game controllers of most long-haul flights. And if you go on the Norwegian Dreamliner, there are natty black-and-white portraits of ice skater-turned-actress Sonja Henie around the place.

The reason it’s so good is perhaps because, in effect, you and I designed it. Blake Emery, Boeing’s director of differentiation strategy, led the concept development behind the interior and says the process was led by passengers for the first time ever. “We thought planes were becoming a commodity and wanted to try a more holistic approach. Traditionally, Boeing always asked their direct customers what they wanted from new planes – in other words, the airlines. But airlines often didn’t have the resources to properly poll end users, so we decided to go straight to the passengers and ask what they wanted.”

Emery got 50 focus groups together across the world over five years in the mid-noughties, as well as experts such as French psychologist and marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille, author of the catchily titled The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do. “Sometimes, we’d get 15 people in a room and just ask what they’d like from a plane if they could have anything; other times we’d put them in a mock-up of an interior and ask them how they felt; and sometimes we’d ask questions to subjects who had no idea what the interview was about – the aim was to get people to convey the actual emotions they’d like to have when flying.”

He says the results were interesting. “Often people can’t articulate why they like something, or why it’s pleasurable – but the questions were tailored so we got results.”

The changes on the Dreamliner are subtle but revolutionary in their way. Because people reported feeling cramped as they walked into a plane, the electronic, tinted windows are 67 per cent bigger than on the earlier Boeing 777, and even in sleep mode you can still see out. Blue lighting when you enter the plane makes it look more spacious, though the light warms up as you get higher (culminating in that rainbow at peak altitude), and subtly changes at meal times so the food looks more appealing. Because of the carbon-fibre fuselage, the cabin’s air pressure can be reduced to a more comfortable 6,000 feet from the usual 8,000 feet, while the humidity can reach up to 15 per cent compared to the usual 4 per cent. As Emery says: “You’ll feel better at the end of a long flight – less dry, less fatigued. You won’t necessarily know why, but you don’t need to.”

Early evidence shows I’m not alone in my response to flying on the Dreamliner. A poll of 800 passengers by Japanese airline ANA found that 90 per cent said the experience surpassed their expectations and 92 per cent preferred the cabin interior. Passengers even reported increased satisfaction with things that hadn’t changed, like the service and food.

While this was all going on inside the plane, there was also a change in the way they build the Dreamliner. Based on the lean manufacturing model pioneered by Toyota, Boeing had already restructured its factory line to cut the time needed to build planes. As guide Eileen says, some of the solutions were simple: “They thought we spent too much time leaving the plane to get parts. We’ve now got systems so the right parts are by the plane at all times, and we’ve got 1,300 bicycles and tricycles in the factory.”

For the Dreamliner, Boeing took another idea Toyota had perfected with its cars – outsourcing much of the plane, and having larger chunks come in pre-built. Jeff Klemann, Boeing’s vice president of final assembly, explains: “If you look at other planes, we make a lot more of them in the factory – we assemble the skin sections to make a barrel; we make a lot of the wing. With the Dreamliner, the major parts come in pre-made – we get a service-ready, pressure-tested wing from Mitsubishi in Japan; we get a whole nose section from Spirit Aerosystems in Wichita that’s ‘stuffed’, which means that the wiring, hydraulics and pneumatics are already installed. It makes our job easier – we’re really just attaching pieces.”

While a million holes are drilled into a Boeing 747, the Dreamliner requires fewer than 10,000 holes – and the result is less time in the factory. By the end of this year, they’ll be able to finish a Dreamliner in five days at Everett, a remarkable feat given that the next quickest production line – for Boeing’s 737, produced at the Renton factory on the other side of Seattle – is 11 days. The 747 jumbo requires four months at Everett. One day, the 787 will be in and out of the factory in three days.

And once it’s ready to fly, it’s packed with more technology than any previous passenger plane. Production test manager Shane Decker, who manages a team of 21 that tests things like the toilets, seats, inflight entertainment, says: “The plane can order its own parts; in the air, if it’s in distress, it can self-correct, or combat turbulence. It’s the smartest plane we’ve ever seen.”

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