Alan G. Miller is the director of technology requirements & incorporation for Boeing Commercial Airlines – Product Development. Miller oversees the development of multi-platform airplane and services requirements, which focuses on the technology investments for Boeing across all technical disciplines. Prior to joining the Product Development team, he was the director of technology integration for the 787 Dreamliner.
What prompted Boeing’s use of composites on a larger scale?
In early 2000 we went to our airline customers and talked about a new airplane called the sonic cruiser. It could travel near Mach 1, allowing higher equipment utilization because they could use it, then turn around and fly back. But that’s not same as fuel efficiency, which they preferred. Things that improve fuel burn and lower emissions are things they can translate quickly into a financial statement.
In the airplane business, you always have to look ahead and see what’s around the corner. The material system has been ready for a long time but has not been cost-effective for large structure applications until recently due to advances in manufacturing technologies and design for use of those manufacturing methods. As a result, Boeing and its partners developed manufacturing techniques and tools that have made it economically feasible to create large composite structures in an efficient manner.
Are there specific technologies that have allowed composites to come into greater use within aerospace?
I would actually turn the question around a little bit and say composites have allowed us to do things much better. In the 787 for example, when we build metallic airplanes, they are relatively sensitive to the thermal environment. So, they become larger or smaller depending on the temperature, whereas composites are more stable. The actual physics of composites is not something we developed but are able to take advantage of regardless. It allowed us to come up with manufacturing systems that don’t rely on compensation tooling, so we are able to develop lean manufacturing systems. As a result, parts are going together much faster than we would have traditionally seen, and much of that is from composites.
Why composites over other materials?
Basic physics. Composites usage started in airplanes in 1947 with glass reinforced composites–carbon wasn’t around at that time. We are always looking for ways to make the aircrafts more lightweight and improve the ability to integrate structures. Composites tend to take smaller parts and make them more integrative. In terms of material performance, it is lighter weight and more durable.