Air travel can present an efficiency dilemma. Trips that wouldn’t be possible by any other means because of time or distance are suddenly viable – though when it comes to manufacturing and fuel resources, airplanes admittedly aren’t the most efficient mode of transportation. But Boeing’s newest passenger jet, the 787 Dreamliner, aims to take a big efficiency step forward with a range of production improvements and design solutions.
To improve an aircraft’s flying efficiency, it needs to be lightweight and aerodynamic. Weight reduction has been one of the biggest challenges facing the 787, and Boeing has responded by using lightweight composites for 50% of the aircraft’s body. The company has also devoted over 15,000 hours to wind tunnel tests, maximizing the Dreamliner’s aerodynamics and resulting in subtle design improvements like the aircraft’s flared wings and sloped nose.
Boeing estimates that aircraft entering service today are 70% more fuel efficient than the jets of the 1960s, and engine technology is largely responsible for the savings. The 787 will use next-generation engines developed by General Electric and Rolls Royce, meaning the Dreamliner will produce 20% fewer emissions and consume 20% less fuel than other comparably sized aircraft.
The manufacturing process that happens before an aircraft even leaves the ground is an important part of its overall efficiency, and the 787’s assembly line is employing some innovative techniques. For example, the use of larger component sections for the airframe speeds production and requires 80% fewer fasteners than before – which translates to just 10,000 holes that need to be drilled, compared to a million for a 747 jumbo jet. Fewer parts and more efficient designs also mean 30% less maintenance is required once the aircraft enters service. And because it’s costly and inefficient to fly half-full planes or to use long-range jets for short trips, Boeing will produce three unique versions of the Dreamliner that will be optimized for different passenger loads and distances.