Ever since the earliest days of the 747 wide-bodied jet, Boeing has been locked in a competition with Airbus for domination of the skies. They recently upped the ante by introducing the first commercially available version of the 787-10 Dreamliner, a new wide-bodied jet that relies heavily on composite materials.
Boeing's official roll-out of the 787-10 occurred in early October at their South Carolina assembly facility in North Charleston. Singapore Airlines is taking delivery of the inaugural aircraft; they have 30 more planes on order and a promise to purchase 19 more.
So, what is it about the 787-10 that makes the plane so attractive? Drastic improvements in fuel mileage and emissions made possible by a full range of composites that make up entire sections of the plane, including the wings and fuselage. Apparently, the 787-10 utilizes some 23 tons of carbon fiber fabricated as fiber composite panels, composite tubing, and other materials.
IT'S ALL ABOUT THE WEIGHT
When the Boeing 747 was first introduced in 1970, it was believed that the company had reached the absolute limit in size and weight.
Engineers have to look at a number of factors when designing a new airplane. First is the total weight of the aircraft, including the aircraft itself along with passengers and cargo. Aerodynamic principles dictate that in order to lift a certain amount of weight off the ground, a plane's wing span has to be commensurate. The more weight you add, the bigger the wings have to be.
The original 747 was thought to be as big as the airline industry could go because airports could not practically handle anything larger. Airplane fuselage and wing measurements had been maxed out with the 747. Yet Boeing's competitors were unwilling to accept that. Just about every airline manufacturer continued to look for ways to go bigger.
However, physical size in relation to airport capacity was not the only issue. With size also comes increased fuel consumption. Unfortunately, there comes a tipping point at which a plane simply burns too much fuel to make it economically viable, despite a large seating capacity.
COMPOSITE MATERIALS ARE THE ANSWER
So, how did we get from the '70s-era 747 to the modern 787-10? By taking advantage of composite materials. Things like fiber composite panels offer superior strength and rigidity without excess weight. In fact, everything from carbon fiber tubing to fabricated sheets and panels offer the strength and rigidity needed for airframe construction but at a much lower cost in terms of weight.
The 787-10 can seat 330 passengers and fly more than 6,000 nautical miles because of the advantages of composite materials. It is a 224-foot aircraft with a wingspan of just under 200 feet, so every major airport in the world can accommodate it. Its main advantage is fuel savings.
By drastically reducing fuel consumption without sacrificing seating capacity, Boeing has created an aircraft that generates higher revenues per seat. In the ultra-competitive world of commercial airlines, this is everything. The amount of fuel burned as compared to the number of seats filled on any given flight is that which separates a profitable flight from its money-losing counterpart.
Composite materials like carbon fiber are being used in a greater number of industries with every passing quarter. They are the future of the airline industry, as companies like Boeing and Airbus compete for dominance of the commercial skies. Thanks to the heavy use of composites, we are flying faster and further but keeping fuel consumption and emissions in check.