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Boeing prepares to build 787 Dreamliner

Boeing's 787 Dreamliner exists largely in the minds and computers of its engineers. But that hasn't tempered the excitement of airline executives eager to get their hands on the plane. Built with high-tech materials, the aircraft promises superb fuel efficiency, a quieter ride and more room for passengers.
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Boeing's 787 Dreamliner exists largely in the minds and computers of its engineers. But that hasn't tempered the excitement of airline executives eager to get their hands on the plane. Built with high-tech materials, the aircraft promises superb fuel efficiency, a quieter ride and more room for passengers.

Boeing executives also are riding high on the Dreamliner. Not long ago, the company was plagued by business missteps and high-profile scandals and had surrendered its dominance to European rival Airbus. Today, thanks to the Dreamliner, Boeing is flexing new muscle on the global stage. In just over two years, the company has sold 432 Dreamliners, helping improve its chances to sell more planes than Airbus for the first time since 2000.

Now Boeing has to turn its high hopes into reality. In coming months, the company will begin assembling the plane at a factory about 30 miles north of here. The risks of failure are immense, a fact acknowledged by top Boeing executives as they look toward the Dreamliner's first flight in August and the first delivery to customers in 2008.

"Every time we do a new airplane we essentially bet the company to some extent," said Scott E. Carson, head of Boeing's commercial airplane division. "When you are placing that kind of bet, you want to get it right. You have to get right."

In a nod to the globalized economy, Boeing is taking a novel step for the company and allowing outside contractors -- many of them overseas -- to design and build 70 percent of the Dreamliner. The wings will come from Japan. Huge parts of the aircraft's body will arrive from Italy. Britain will deliver engines, and China will contribute rudders. France is producing the landing gear.

Complicated challenge
The new process reverses the standard outsourcing ratio; Boeing normally builds most of each plane itself. The company says its system not only slashes its costs but also allows the contractors to share profit.

"This program is probably the most complicated thing that [Boeing] commercial airplanes has ever done," said Michael B. Bair, general manager of the 787 program.

Managing any project on such a scale is a daunting challenge. Airbus has stumbled badly in its attempts to build a massively complicated super-jumbo jet, the A380. Airbus, part of the aerospace company European Aeronautic Defence and Space, farmed out production of the A380 to satisfy its partners. But production problems and delays in the plane's development have cut profit and led to the departure of several executives. Airbus has delayed delivery of the 550-seat aircraft by two years, scaring off some potential buyers.

On Nov. 7, FedEx canceled an order for 10 freighter versions of the A380. Instead, FedEx ordered 15 of Boeing's 777 freighters.

Boeing executives say they are working hard to head off any potential problems with the Dreamliner, which will cost an estimated $8 billion to develop.

In October, Boeing said it would spend a total of $500 million more this year and next to reduce the Dreamliner's weight. The plane, which will seat 210 to 330 passengers will be made of composite materials on a scale never before attempted on a commercial aircraft. The lightweight composites and other new aerodynamic features will account for about half of the plane's fuel savings, and the other half will come from more efficient engines, Boeing says. The plane is being promoted as using about 20 percent less fuel than the Boeing 767, which the Dreamliner will replace on may routes.

"From a commercial airplane structure point of view, this is going from cloth and wood to aluminum," Bair said.

After all the parts arrive from around the world, workers will assemble the planes in a hurry. Boeing chose its partners based on their ability to produce the parts efficiently and to a high standard, executives said. Boeing's goal is to churn out each plane in three days on an assembly line that more closely resembles a Japanese auto factory than the typical aircraft production line.

It takes the company 11 days to build a much smaller 737 using a similar approach, company officials said. Boeing executives say they adopted the auto-industry model to reduce expenses and better track production.

Far-flung operations
Analysts say they admire Boeing's confidence in its new, complex system. But they also wonder whether the company will be able to keep tabs on so many far-flung operations involving critical components.

"There are literally . . . a million things that can go wrong in the process that could throw them off track," said Scott Hamilton, managing director of the Leeham Co., a firm in the state of Washington that tracks Airbus and Boeing.

Development of the Dreamliner began in the late 1990s when Boeing executives realized they needed a plane that would excite passengers and airlines. They wanted a mid-size, wide-body jet that could accommodate what the company thinks will be explosive growth in long-haul travel on routes that bypass hub airports to link medium-size cities.

At the time, Boeing was just getting over major production and backlog problems that cost it billions of dollars. It seemed listless and unambitious in its proposed designs, analysts said. It also soon fell behind Airbus in annual orders.

Boeing first proposed the Sonic Cruiser, a plane that promised to be faster than most other jets. But the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks dealt a blow to the airline industry, and the bottom soon fell out of Boeing's order book.

As fuel prices soared, airlines were no longer interested in speed. They wanted efficiency. Boeing dropped the Sonic Cruiser and switched gears to build the 787.

Analysts say that Boeing made the right choice in building the Dreamliner. It has racked up far more orders than the A380, which has netted what analysts call a lackluster 149 orders and commitments for 17 more. The analysts also question whether there is enough growth in the super-jumbo market for Airbus ever to make money on the plane.

In aggressively going after the mid-size market, Boeing has also taken another big lead on Airbus, which has been forced to redesign one of its jets to compete with the Dreamliner and its bigger cousin, the 777. The A380 won't enter the marketplace until 2012 at the earliest, giving Boeing a four-year head start if it can keep to its delivery schedule.

"This embodies Boeing's renaissance, and their return to market dominance" said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for the Teal Group who tracks the industry. "But if it doesn't work, it's back to square one."

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.