Boeing's 777X plans: Big windows, lots of air, and robot manufacturing

The company is copying passenger-friendly details from its 787 Dreamliner into its upcoming 777X wide-body passenger jet, the company announces at the Farnborough airshow.
by Stephen Shankland
July 15, 2014 4:00 AM PDT

FARNBOROUGH, UK -- Passenger-friendly interior details like big windows, clean air, and comfortably high cabin pressure that Boeing introduced with its 787 Dreamliner will also come to its larger long-haul sibling, the 777X passenger jet due in 2020.

Boeing announced the details for the 777 successor here at the Farnborough International Airshow, a premier event for the aviation industry where aircraft manufacturers try to win over the world's airlines. In addition, the company said it's bringing robotic manufacturing to some parts of fuselage assembly for both the 777 and 777X, a move that should increase production rates and quality.

The 787 Dreamliner family -- including the existing 242-passenger 787-8 and the new 787-9 that just started shipping -- has a range of change designed to make passengers more comfortable. That includes large windows that let more than just window-seat passengers see out; high ceilings and reworked higher-capacity overhead bins; air-filtering systems that can absorb odors like perfume; higher humidity; and cabin pressure that's the equivalent of 6,000 feet above sea level, not the usual 8,000 feet. Among the features that will move to the 777X will be the humidity, cabin pressure, and large windows, said Scott Fancher, Boeing's senior vice president of airplane development. It'll also get lower cabin noise by virtue of a quieter new engine housing.

"One thing we learned from the 787 is the amazing passenger experience -- the cabin altitude, the cleanliness, the openness and airiness of the interior. We've learned from it and replicated it in the 777X," Fancher said. "From every seat in this airplane, the passenger will see the horizon."

Some of the changes may seem cosmetic or simple, but they aren't necessarily. Structural changes are necessary to accommodate larger windows and the higher pressure from the 6,000-foot equivalent altitude. But the prospect of happier passengers -- especially on the long trips up to 10,700 miles (17,220km) the 777-8X -- is a good argument for airplane salespeople to use, and right now the market is fiercely competitive. Both Boeing and its rival Airbus are scrambling to satisfy new demand from customers.

On the first day of the airshow, customers placed about $41.9 billion worth of orders and commitments, triple the rate of the last Farnborough show in 2012. "Prospects for the rest of the week are looking extremely positive," show organizers said in a statement.

At least some of that demand is directed at the 777. Air Lease Corp. said Tuesday it's ordered six of the current 777-300ER (extended range) jets. But Boeing has to be more excited by last week's news that Emirates Airline finalized its order for 150 777X jets. That's fully half of the 300 orders so far, and at list prices is worth $56 billion.

Boeing is ramping up production to keep pace with passenger-jet demand. For instance, its 787 manufacturing is moving from 10 per month now to 14 per month in 2018.

A rendering of Boeing 777X's interior

Here come the robots

Helping the production-line speedup will be increased use of robots for manufacturing, a move that follows the auto industry's footsteps. Boeing is moving to a new assembly technology in which robots join some 777 and 777X fuselage panels together by drilling holes and attaching about 60,000 fasteners. A German company with a major presence in the auto industry, Kuka Robotics, is supplying the robots.

Robots can improve quality and speed, and Boeing also pointed to safety improvements: the process that's being automated is responsible for more than half of worker injuries today, the company said.

Workers often aren't happy to be replaced by robots, but those affected by the robotic assembly won't lose their jobs. Instead, they'll be moved to other manufacturing jobs or to operating the robots, said company spokesman Doug Alder.

The company already opened the door to robots in 2013, using them to paint 737 wings. And it's accepted delivery of robots that will automate 737 wing assembly.

Boeing plans to keep making 777 models for another six or seven years, said Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing's commercial airplane division.

Other 777X improvements

Boeing and Airbus are steering away from major new designs like the Airbus A350 XWB and the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Instead, they're moving toward updates to existing craft. Airbus announced its A330neo on Monday, for example, a model that will be 14 percent more fuel-efficient than the current A330 and can carry 10 more passengers. And Boeing's 737 Max is 20 percent more efficient than today's 737 and can carry 11 more passengers.

The 777X -- a placeholder name during the development and testing phase -- is another such update. It's a lot more than just cabin improvements and a fresh coat of paint, though.

Boeing says the 777X will have 12 percent better fuel efficiency and 10 percent better operating costs than Airbus' A350-1000.

One big aspect of the 777X will be a technology called hybrid laminar flow control. In laminar flow, a fluid or gas travels smoothly, with none of the vortices and pressure differences characteristic of turbulent flow.

"It's a competitive advantage for us," Fancher said. "The longer that laminar flow length, the more efficient that surface is. It's very economical, maintainable, supportable, and on our airplanes."

The 787 uses hybrid laminar flow control on its tail assembly's vertical and horizontal stabilizers. Fancher wouldn't detail where it'll be used on the 777X, but said it's applicable to that same area. The wings, though, won't get the technology, because anti-icing technology makes it too complicated.

The 777X, announced in May 2013, will come in two varieties, the 350-passenger 777-8X and the 400-passenger 777-9X. The twin-aisle planes are wide-body models, but are two-engine craft that aren't as big as the venerable four-engine 747 jet line.

The planes aren't an impulse buy: The 777-8X has a list price of $350 million and the 777-9X $377 million.


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