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Computing & Design/Build Processes Help Develop the 777

Through innovative applications of computing technology, the 777 program exceeded its goal of reducing change, error and rework by 50 percent. Parts and systems have fit together better than anticipated and at the highest level of quality. The first 777 was just .023 of an inch -- about the thickness of a playing card -- within perfect alignment while most airplane parts line up to within a half inch to each other.

In the mid-1980s, The Boeing Company invested in three-dimensional CAD/CAM (computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing) technology for strategic reasons. By the end of that decade, a single strategy for applying this capability emerged after numerous pilot programs were conducted.

The pilot programs clearly demonstrated the benefits of modeling airplane parts as three-dimensional solids in the CATIA (computer-aided three-dimensional interactive application) system. Developed by Dassault Systemes of France and marketed by IBM in the United States, CATIA, along with several Boeing-created applications - allowed Boeing engineers to simulate the geometry of an airplane design on the computer without the costly and time-consuming investment of using physical mock-ups.

Studies at Boeing show that part interference (incidents of assembly parts overlapping each other) and difficulty in properly fitting parts together in aircraft final assembly are the most pervasive problems in manufacturing airplanes.

By 1989, the Boeing Engineering organization was confident that it could significantly reduce the costly rework caused by part interference and fit problems by digitally pre-assembling the airplane on the computer. The improved accuracy in part design and assembly, as well as the instantaneous communication capability of this technology convinced Boeing that the significant investment required to implement it would more than pay for itself in the long run by improving the quality of airplane designs and reducing the cycle time required to introduce new airplanes into the marketplace.

The opportunity to apply the new CAD/CAM approach as well as other new engineering and manufacturing ideas came in 1990 with the launch of the Boeing 777 twinjet. The 777 program established design/build teams to develop each element of the airplane's airframe or system. Under this approach, all of the different specialties involved in airplane development -- designers, manufacturing representatives, tooling, engineers, finance, suppliers, customers and others -- worked jointly to create the airplane's parts and systems. Based at the same location, team members worked concurrently, sharing their knowledge rather than applying their skills sequentially.

Communication among the program's 238 design/build teams was accomplished by using sophisticated computers linked by the largest mainframe installation of its kind in the world, consisting of eight IBM mainframe computers. This computer network consisted of mainframes and work station installations in the Puget Sound area, Japan; Wichita, Kan.; Philadelphia; and other locations.

Central to the digital design approach was the CATIA system. From the beginning of the 777 program, the three key participants in the system -- Boeing, Dassault Systemes and IBM -- developed a "working together" agreement signed by their respective chief executive officers. The three companies made a commitment in the agreement to deliver products and services on schedule to the 777 program computer users.

But the basic CAD/CAM technology provided by the CATIA system was not enough. The possibilities this technology provided required Boeing to rethink the entire process of designing and building an airplane in order to leverage these capabilities to their maximum extent. The company found that several enhancements to the CATIA system were required to allow engineers to productively design an entire airplane using these new processes. Boeing applications enhanced the CATIA system in three major areas: data management, user productivity and visualization. Each of these major enhancements was required to deal with the size and scale of productively managing the millions of 777 airplane parts modeled on CATIA.

Once all of the computing applications were in place, Boeing engineers and designers were able to use the three-dimensional digital software to see parts as solid images and then simulate the assembly of those parts on the screen, easily correcting misalignments and other fit or interference problems.

In June 1995, the Boeing 777 Division was recognized for its innovative application of computing technology to the 777 when it won the top spot in the Manufacturing category of the annual Computerworld Smithsonian Awards. The awards honor the world's most creative and innovative use of information technology that benefit society. By earning top honors in the category, the Boeing Computing and Design Application earned a place in history in the Smithsonian Institution's permanent research collection. Information on the application also is available at The Information Age: People, Information & Technology, a permanent exhibit at the National Museum of American History, which has been viewed by millions of visitors.