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Adrian Wilson

Editor's Viewpoint

28th December 2016, UK

Japan’s Dreamliner commitment

Just before Christmas 2016, Boeing delivered the 500th 787 Dreamliner, a 787-8 model, to Colombia’s national airline, Avianca. 

This followed the announcement, on December 8th, that the plane maker had commenced final assembly in North Charleston, South Carolina, of the 787-10 – the largest and most fuel-efficient member of the 787 family to date, for which 154 orders from nine customers have already been received.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft are 80% composite by volume and 50% by weight. © Boeing

Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft are 80% composite by volume and 50% by weight (involving around 23 tons of carbon fibre per plane) and their impact on the global composites industry supply chain has been simply immeasurable.

Since entering service in 2011, the 787 Dreamliner fleet has grown to include 48 operators, who have collectively flown 696,000 revenue flights, carrying 133 million passengers over 1.7 billion revenue miles.

The 787 family is now flying more than 530 routes, with customers having opened more than 120 new non-stop routes around the world.

The first 787-10 is expected to fly in 2017 and the first delivery is scheduled for 2018.

Japan’s involvement

What’s sometimes not widely appreciated, however, is the role that Japan’s industry has played in the 787 story.

In April 2004, All Nippon Airways (ANA) became the launch customer for the 787, announcing a firm order for 50 aircraft, with deliveries initially scheduled to begin in late 2008. The ambitious project inevitably experienced delays and the airliner’s maiden flight was not until December 2009, with flight testing completed in mid-2011. The first ANA 787 entered commercial service in October 2011.

ANA currently operates 58 787 planes. © Boeing

ANA currently operates 58 787 planes, with a further 25 on order – the largest of any plane company – including three 787-10s ordered in January 2015.

Since 2014, Boeing and ANA have also teamed up to implement operational improvements aimed at reducing costs and increasing efficiency of maintenance operations for ANA’s current and future Boeing 777 models as part of the Boeing Optimized Maintenance Programme (OMP) service.

Involved from the start in the 787, Japanese companies co-designed and build 35% of the aircraft – the first time, for example, that outside firms have played a key design role on Boeing airliner wings – and the Japanese government supported development with an estimated $2 billion in loans.

Toray expansion

In April 2006, meanwhile, Toray Industries signed an initial $6 billion contract to supply the carbon fibre and prepreg for 787 planes.

This contract has grown continuously, and following its aerospace success with both Boeing and Airbus, the world’s largest manufacturer of carbon fibre has now identified expansion in the automotive field as one of its top priorities.

The monthly assembly rate of ten 787 planes now being built by Boeing means the Toray TCA plant is currently operating at full capacity. © Boeing

Toray has continuously made capital investments in respect of its Torayca PAN-based carbon fibre production and in a very major move, in September 2013, also acquired carbon tow producer Zoltek for $584 million.

Plans were announced to expand the production of Torayca carbon fibre prepreg for both aircraft and automotive applications at the Toray Composites America (TCA) plant in Tacoma, Washington in February 2014. Just weeks later, Toray said it would build a second carbon fibre plant in South Carolina.

The monthly assembly rate of ten 787 planes now being built by Boeing means the Toray TCA plant is currently operating at full capacity. The latest Torayca expansion is in response to Boeing’s announcement that it will raise its programme to 16 planes monthly.

The 787 family is now flying more than 530 routes. © Boeing

Boeing has reportedly spent $32 billion on the 787 programme and it will start to break even once 1,100 of the planes are in commercial operation. At present, the cost of manufacturing a 787 is still greater than the purchase price.

The plane maker will meanwhile spend an estimated $36 billion with Japanese companies up to 2020, related to the 787 and 777 programmes.

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