Boeing’s Digital-Design New Airliner Plan Faces Long Road Ahead

Boeing’s next new airplane goal is to combine aircraft design and production processes in a unified MBE framework.
Credit: Boeing

Throughout the ups and downs of Boeing’s recent product development strategy, one message has remained consistent since 2015—the launch of its next all-new commercial aircraft hinges as much on perfecting a lower-cost production system as it does on the design of the airliner itself.

  • Scaling up MBE from military to civil key challenge
  • Industry-standard interfaces crucial to digital plan

At the heart of this strategy is the company’s ongoing digital transformation, the baseline concept under which Boeing is reimagining how work is achieved when all barriers to exchanging information are removed. The transition is exemplified by Boeing’s wholesale adoption of a model-based engineering (MBE) system in which modeling supports the development of a new aircraft, from system requirements, design, analysis and verification through conceptual design, development and operation.

Digital thread graphic
Credit: Boeing

In a diamond-shaped graphic representing Boeing’s MBE framework, the traditional physical system-engineering-based design and delivery process is on the bottom half. The virtual representation of physical systems in modeling and simulation are on the top half. A digital thread runs between the real and virtual worlds, linking models to the design of physical systems and enabling the two paths to inform one another continuously and remain concurrent.

Building on decades of increasingly sophisticated computational design efforts in military and commercial programs, Boeing implemented full-scale digital MBE efforts to speed the development of a raft of recent projects, including the T-7A advanced trainer, MQ-25 uncrewed aerial refueling aircraft and Airpower Teaming System (ATS) in Australia. The approach used for the T-7A resulted in a 75% increase in the number of parts that passed quality inspections the first time, a reduction in development cycle time to just 36 months and an 80% reduction in assembly time due to the use of full-size determinate assembly techniques.

Although those numbers represent a positive development, Boeing’s challenge now is how to transfer this process to the commercial world. “The requirements for a military aircraft are far different than they are for a large commercial airplane. We all know that—so how could this apply to commercial airplane development program?” asks Greg Hyslop, chief engineer and executive vice president of Boeing engineering, test and technology.

“What we’re in the process of doing for our next commercial airplane is [taking] all the rigor we apply to the design of the airplane and applying that to the design of the production system,” Hyslop says. “We’re going to connect those two models up through a definitive and authoritative engineering database so that when we see a change in the airplane, we can see its effect on the change in the factory, or if we need to change something in the factory.”

Using the interactive feedback capability of MBE, the concept should enable Boeing to avoid potential issues and challenges well in advance while simultaneously adding design flexibility and reducing both development time and cost.

“In a real sense, what we’re trying to do here is write another chapter in the history of aircraft manufacturing for the Boeing company,” Hyslop says. “We’re going to build the first several airplanes in a simulation with everything that might involve looking at things like augmented reality—how can we predict the performance of the factory with enough rigor and enough accuracy so that we can see the effect of airplane design on the performance of the factory?

“To my knowledge, nobody’s done it to the level we want to do it. It’s an extremely hard problem,” he continues. “But it’s got extreme benefit because we’ve seen that benefit manifested in programs like the T-7A. If we can translate the benefits over to our commercial business, that will be groundbreaking.”

Hyslop notes that, “as we go through that development process, we’ll be predicting the performance of the airplane, but we will also be predicting the performance of the factory at the same time.” He adds: “We will capture the requirements for the production system, just like we capture the requirements for the airplane, in a system-engineering environment.” The result should increase the flexibility of both the aircraft and production system design, he says.

“I can see where I have margin and, if I predict my factory is going to be doing better than I need, is there something I can take from that to make the airplane perform better?” Hyslop remarks. “If I see the factory is not performing, what can I change in the . . . design of the aircraft to have the factory performance stand up?”

To formalize the digital transition to a commercial product in which both aircraft and factory design are combined in a single MBE framework, Boeing established an Integrated Product Team (IPT) in September 2021. The team is led by Linda Hapgood, a former vice president of engineering practices, processes and tools for the company, and builds on other initiatives and experiences across Boeing. These include experience gained at the digital-capable infrastructure and advanced processes in the company’s “future factory” prototype production system facility, which opened in the UK in 2018, as well as lessons learned from the canceled new midmarket airplane, the 787 and recent military programs.

“We’ve been on this journey for a number of years,” Hyslop says. “On the commercial side, the 787 took us so far, and there were many lessons learned from that effort. We’re taking all those things that went well and the things that didn’t go well, and now we are bringing this forward into this new design. ‘This’ being a precursor to how we want to go into our next commercial airplane development,” he adds.

MBE practices were proved on programs such as the MQ-25, but they will need to be drastically scaled for commercial application. Credit: Brian Everstine/AW&ST

With so many lessons already learned, and the concept proved by pathfinder programs like T-7A and MQ-25, what still stands between Boeing and the full implementation of MBE to launch an all-new commercial aircraft? “It’s always scale—and that’s what it has to be,” Hyslop says. “That’s the hard problem we have to solve over the next few years. None of those [defense programs] are at the size or scale of a commercial development program in terms of either the supply base or the level of certifications required.”

Hyslop also maintains that recently reported losses on both the T-7A and MQ-25 ($367 million and $78 million, respectively) are not reflective of shortcomings associated with using the MBE process. “Any development program [will] have challenges—what we do is hard, he says. “I would contend both programs are going to show up [at] a pace that’s much faster than what would be a traditional development program for those types of aircraft, given what they are being asked to do and the kind of first-time capability they’re offering.”

Referencing the “scar tissue” from the 787 program, he adds: “We know what to avoid. And we absolutely know the key things we cannot compromise on if we’re going to be successful in this endeavor. That’s the critical part of this.”

A big part of the challenge pacing full commercial implementation is the inclusion of the vastly greater extended supply network involved in any civil airliner program compared to the average military aircraft. “We’ve always got to be thinking about our supply base as to how we do this and bring them along, because if all we do is worry about our work, we won’t get the benefit,” Hyslop says. “We’ve got to bring our suppliers on, and I think through the use of industry standards instead of proprietary interfaces, we’re going to be able to do that.”

By defining a digital thread based on industry standards rather than proprietary interfaces, Boeing plans to work seamlessly with suppliers rather than be required to accommodate the various tool sets used throughout the industry. “We have to follow industry standards as we define that digital thread; that’s very important. That sounds easy, but it’s going to be difficult,” he continues.

“We’ve got a whole team dedicated just to that, and that’s where we have to bring our suppliers along to make sure they understand what those industry standards are.” Hyslop notes. “It’s not a Boeing spec; it’s an industry spec on how we’re going to define those interfaces.”

And what of the potential shorter development and build cycles that were seen on the T-7A, which went from computer screen to flight in three years? “Is that what’s going to happen on a big commercial airplane? I don’t know, but that’s one of the reasons for optimism,” Hyslop says. The T-7A prototype was close to the production aircraft, “but they did not have to go through a certification program on that, so that’s why I don’t want to predict what it might yield,” he adds. “But it does make the airplane come together faster, and there was less rework on the initial aircraft.”

Remarking on frequent comments by Boeing CEO David Calhoun that the launch of the next new aircraft is a “couple of years” away, Hyslop says: “We’ve got time. We’re not going to go until we are ready, and we’re determined to work through these issues. I don’t think the issues are unsolvable.” 

Guy Norris

Guy is a Senior Editor for Aviation Week, covering technology and propulsion. He is based in Colorado Springs.


Actually, you do not have "plenty of time", thanks to the recent China sobering up. This upset proves Boeing needs to leapfrog existing tech and "do something" in a radical way. Produce a Design that will excite the worlds' airline customers.
Go find a conference room, bring the engine and avionics OEMs in, along with your best airframe/traveler experience designers/programmers and provide a clean sheet plane ASAP.
Bring back the circa-post WW2 competitive spirit Boeing... And send your CFO on a long vacation... you can be #1 again if you look tech-forward and get the Quality/Engineering culture back.
It's only a matter of time before Boeing can integrate the entire system and produce a new and improved aircraft. Boeing has always been my favorite plane.
Reads like an interview with Frank Statkus on the lessons learnt from Virtual Product Definition on the X-32 program and how that is going to be transferred to the 7E7 - just with much less confidence.
Arguably, the problems then encountered by the 7E7 were largely attributable to management failures. But the current "Digital Design" effort will do nothing to solve these either.