Nine Lessons the Auto Industry Can Learn From the 787 Dreamliner

When the company's survival is on the line you can do what you’ve done better, or do something different. Boeing chose different.

The 787 wasn’t the first shot Boeing took at resurrecting its commercial airliner business in the dark days of the late 1990s. The first was the near-Mach Sonic Cruiser, a 21st Century plane that promised faster travel for the average flier. Its main problem was that it wasn’t the efficient, comfortable, special airplane the airlines and flying public wanted. Enter the 787: “The Sonic Cruiser and 787 took aim at the same spot in the market–mid-size [200-250 passengers] and long range [7,000-8,000 nautical miles]–but there is greater value for a majority of airlines in creating a more fuel efficient jetliner than a faster one,” says Tom Cogan, 787 chief program engineer. However, fuel efficiency alone isn’t enough to bring passengers and–more importantly–airlines to your door. New Ford CEO Alan Mullaly, the president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes at the time of the plane’s inception, said the Dreamliner had to “provide new solutions for airlines and passengers” and “bring back the magic of flight.”

Auto Lesson #1:
Fuel efficiency may be important, but you can’t lose sight of the fact that cars and trucks have a certain “magic” associated with them for many people.

For the 787, this meant addressing the main complaint of any flyer: the cabin. While First and Business Class accommodations are often roomier and more comfortable, Coach Class seats usually qualify for the term “steerage.” But better seats and more elbow room only go so far. How people interact with the space is as important as how much space they have to interact with. “The initial goals included an unprecedented focus on the passenger experience, in much the same way a company like BMW focuses on the driver,” says Blake Emery, director, Differentiation Strategy, Boeing Commercial Airplanes. That focus, he says, had to include “an experience noticeably different than anything that has gone before, and that included focusing on the unique experience of being thousands of feet above the earth.”

Auto Lesson #2:
Focus on what the drivers and passengers will do, how being in a vehicle makes their journey unique, and how to use this information to make those trips enjoyable.

Emery says he draws inspiration from a number of sources, including automotive interiors, and is good friends with Ital Design’s Fabrizio Giugiaro and Fiat’s Michael Robinson. However, he saw no need to throw out established relationships to create the interior for what many analysts were calling Boeing’s “make-or-break” airplane. Teague Design of Seattle, Washington (www.teague.com)–an award-winning industrial design firm founded in 1926 by noted designer Walter Dorwin Teague that has a 60-year relationship with Boeing–was called in to work with Emery’s design team. Faced with a machine drawn from a clean slate and using state-of-the-art materials and construction techniques, the group decided to throw all their assumptions out the window and start from scratch. In effect, they decided to re-connect with the flying public, and determine their true needs and desires.

Auto Lesson #3:
Sometimes the tried-and-true limits your ability to breakout.

“We conducted a lot of research in cities throughout the world, including Tokyo, Munich, London, Hong Kong, as well as several cities in North America,” says Emery, “and from this we wrote a brief that drove the design effort.” That brief included two important facts: (1) people are fascinated with flight and want to feel connected to the experience as it happens, and (2) they like to feel welcomed when they enter a new place. “Space is at a premium in an airplane,” says Emery, “so the major challenge any interior design team faces is how to make passengers more comfortable while still providing a product that allows airlines to be more profitable.” And those airlines loathe stepping outside known boundaries. As a result, seats are selected from various known suppliers, and installed by Boeing according to the carrier’s specifications for leg room, room between seats, backrest angle, etc. Leaving this relationship unchanged, however, could have scuttled the designers’ plans before takeoff. Says Emery, “With the 787 we took some initiative.”

Auto Lesson #4:
Go back to first principles and re-learn what you already “know.”

Boeing sent its designers and engineers into the field to study the available seats in order to determine which worked best with their plans for the 787. It didn’t take long, however, before they determined why some seat designs are more comfortable than others, and what items would improve available leg room. “From this,” says Emery, “we put together a seat rating system based on comfort and how the design accentuated leg room for the person in the row behind.” These standards were turned into a rating system that gave the airlines objective data they could use during seat selection. No supplier was told their seat would not be listed, but they were informed that the rating system would be applied. Not unexpectedly, says Emery, “virtually all of the seat makers put additional thought into their designs, and many have developed new options in order to get top scores within the Boeing rating system.”

Auto Lesson #5:
Suppliers perform to the metrics they are given. Make them meaningful for the end user.

Another area of study measured the effect that seat arrangement had on the perception of comfort, especially for economy-class passengers in typical eight- or nine-abreast layouts. “For the eight-abreast layout, we developed a patented 3-2-3 arrangement that allows for the greatest percentage of seat occupancy before filling the middle seats,” says Emery. Boeing’s research showed that sitting next to an empty seat was given the same positive response as additional seat width or leg room. Therefore, “each empty center seat makes the other two passengers happy,” says Emery. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the carbon composite fuselage of the 787 is wider than other mid-size jetliners, a full 15-in. wider at seated eye level, which also means seats and the aisles can be about 1.5-in. wider.

Auto Lesson #6:
Your differentiators should fill the end customer with delight.

To answer passengers’ desire to feel welcomed, the designers created a tall, dramatically lit entry way to create a sense of sky overhead. “You can visually welcome people by changing the dimension of the space they are in,” says Emery, especially since they are most likely to be entering the plane through a cramped jet way. “We took full advantage of the dimensions of the airplane to give them spaciousness at the entry point, and used arrays of LEDs to bring brightness and color to the cabin ceiling,” he says. This solid-state lighting–supplied by Germany’s Diehl Luftfahrt Elektronik–is found throughout the cabin, is controlled by the cabin crew, and is adjustable from daylight to a nighttime sky. It also makes airlines and their crew happier since it promises lower maintenance costs and longer service intervals.

Auto Lesson #7:
Not only can technology provide a user benefit, it also can cut long-term costs.

To reunite passengers to the world outside the cabin, the designers and engineers took advantage of the 787’s carbon fiber construction (50% by weight) to redefine airplane windows. As a result, the windows on the 787 (47-mm tall by 28-cm wide) are 65% larger than the competition’s, and allow passengers to look out without having to bend when seated. “This gives passengers a view of the horizon from any seat, and reconnects them with the flying experience,” says Emery. To keep this connection intact, the windows are dimmed electrochromically, which not only eliminates separates shades, it gives passengers the ability to dim the incoming light while still allowing them to watch the terrain pass by.

Auto Lesson #8:
Discover how you can leverage one technical benefit (e.g. light weight) for greater customer satisfaction (e.g. larger windows).

Boeing also readjusted the climate control system based on studies it performed with Oklahoma State University and Denmark Technical University. “The relative cabin altitude of the 787 will be 6,000 ft versus 8,000 ft on today’s airplanes,” says Emery, “because the use of composite materials allows us to increase the cabin pressure with no worries about material fatigue.” In addition to the highly efficient HEPA filters used today, the 787 adds a new gaseous filtration technology that is used in conjunction with increased humidity to reduce the symptoms associated with dryness. Add to this archways at selected locations that separate the fuselage into room-like spaces, bins that will allow each passenger to place a roll-on bag overhead, larger lavatories with anti-microbial surfaces, and acoustically treated air inlets and exhaust housing chevrons for less engine noise to reduce the noise footprint by 60%, and you have an airplane that might just “bring back the magic of flight.”

Auto Lesson #9:
Little things, even those the customer might not readily perceive—can provide big benefits.