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Boeing is back! Innovation lives in aerospace.


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November 16, 2005

Boeing is back! Innovation lives in aerospace.

Bruce Nussbaum

There is so much innovation going on in the US today that even Boeing is back as an innovation leader. For a while, it looked like Boeing's days as a commercial jet pioneer were over, with the company mired in scandal, moving from Seattle to Chicago and loosing its focus by shifting more to defense. Europe's Airbus clearly took the lead with the jumbo 380 and with more high-tech innovation overall.

But the Boeing 787 is turning out to be a brilliant hit, not only because it is so fuel-efficient in an era of high energy prices but because it is a point-to-point jet that carries you directly from one city to another around the world. No hub. And we all hate the hub model which forces us to stop over and wait, not only for another plane but for the weather. Don't get me wrong. Airbus is a terrfic, innovative company that makes great products. Where would JetBlue be without its Airbus jets?

But it is nice to see Boeing back in the competition. Boeing is going to build a bigger and more fuel efficient 747 to directly challenge the Airbus jumbo 380 for planes with 400 seats or more. The new 747-8 will borrow the fuel efficiency from the 787, including the GEnx engines. It will carry about 450 passengers compared to the 380's 550, but may require much less of the rebuilding of airports that the giant Airbus will need.

So Boeing is back in the innovation game. Yet I still miss the great Sonic Cruiser that Boeing engineers wanted to build but management decided to pass on. Oh, c'mon Boeing. Build this beauty!

05:49 PM

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While the 787 (and the 777) are excellent aircraft, the 747 upgrade you tout here isn't "innovative" in the sense you make it out to be. The 747-8 is, as Airbus rightly points out in their recent press comments, a modified 1960's-era design with some upgrades essentially grafted on to it. To be sure there's a ton of difficult and demanding work involved in pulling that off, but why on earth cite that as an example here? That's not being amazingly innovative. That's being reactionary.

Which gets us back to the real news that you don't discuss: the BWB wind tunnel tests announced this past week. The decades-old blended-wing/lifting body concept (an offspring of the original "lifting body" fuselage patented way back in 1930(!) and carried forward in aircraft such as the Junkers G-38, early Northrop flying wings, the lifting body Northrop HL-10 {my old favorite}, and the B-2 Stealth bomber) is finally showing some real progress. Why not discuss the BWB instead?

Even so, I'm not sure I would call the BWB news evidence of a sudden realization at Boeing that Innovation is Key. The BWB idea has been sitting around for a relatively long time (it was originally a McDonnell-Douglas concept demonstrated in 1997). Everyone knew it's advantages. And with the success of the B-2, solving difficult flight stability issues was obviously doable. But does this recent news of a successful wind tunnel test sound like a company driven by innovation? or a company realizing that if they don't push forward they'll be history?

Don't get me wrong, I think Boeing is an amazing company. But you're posting a big endorsement here. You might want to be sure they're more deserving than other companies out there. They shouldn't qualify just because they're big and American, imo.

Posted by: csven at November 18, 2005 06:59 PM

Boeing has got a superb strategy. Retrofit the 747 is far much cheaper than designing a totally new plane as the A380 is! This airbus will have to compete with an aircraft much cheaper AND with older machines equipped with new engines, new tyres and new avionics.

If boeing introduces a technology breakthrough like sharkskin in this new 747, they will get a lethal competitive advantage.

Sharkskin is a polymer coating applied on the extrados. Like a real skin, it reduces significantly the drag.

Posted by: Georges de Wailly at November 18, 2005 10:11 PM

I might agree that retrofitting the 747 is a good *short term* business move at *this* point; however, in my opinion, if Boeing were now a truly innovative company (in the "design has won" sense Mr. Nussbaum frequently trumpets), they'd be pursuing one of the concepts they developed in the 90's instead of sinking time, money and effort into a reactive project. That would be a *truly* innovative effort in contrast to the 747-8. If I had to guess, the reason they're not focusing their efforts on a new design is because shareholders are impatient, and that kind of innovation might put a dent in short-term returns on their investment.

As for reduced-drag materials, I've seen no recent news of Boeing introducing a truly revolutionary material or system of materials. One could as easily say "if Airbus" (and I've no doubt they're also working on "shark skin" materials, adaptive/active skins, and various other systems for delaying flow separation, reducing turbulence and lowering the Cd). If either of you have a link to a Boeing press release touting a breakthrough in this area which is tied specifically to the 747-8, please share.

Posted by: csven at November 20, 2005 04:29 PM

I love Boeing it's the best co in the whole world

Posted by: makhabanemolap at November 21, 2005 12:25 PM

One word about Boeing and Airbus.

I didn't present myself, I am French and by the way quality engineer and I own a graduate degree in industrial product design. One thing is sure:

Airbus industries invests a lot of money in R&D.

But Boeing has a big advance, so a good stategy is to wait and see. General Electric has taken share in SNECMA. 50% of an Airbus is US made. Near all the hydraulics, pneumatics spare parts are made in the USA.

So, why kill this new flying whale(The A380)?

Innovation is not a goal by itself! It's a tool!..

Americans are extremely reactive when it's necessary. I am convinced they will react in the right time. This is a risk Europeans forget a little bit too quickly!..

Posted by: Georges de Wailly at December 3, 2005 03:33 PM

As an aviation management student the bigger picture here is watching boeing move forward while still adapting to the present economy. Not everywhere in the world can accomidate the Airbus 380 not even all hubs. It's about adapting to what we have not adapting to what might work

Posted by: Rachel at September 7, 2006 12:14 AM

The sonic cruiser looks awsome, but the aircraft nose could use a little sharping

Posted by: Russ .S at October 17, 2006 06:22 PM


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