MIAMI— As Boeing celebrates 20 years since the 777 entered service, the Boeing 777 program has been one of the most successful in the history of the company. During the last ten years, it has been the best-selling widebody with over 1,866 orders, 1,296 aircraft in service —including 25 units sold this year—and almost 1300 deliveries to 68 carriers worldwide.  The company, keen to keep sales and production of this wide-body cash flow at strength,  has made the existing 777 Classic a key sales priority for Boeing Commercial Aircraft.  The transition to the type’s next generation version, the 777X is already underway, but new performance and passenger appeal features and assembly improvements are being adopted for an enhanced version of the current 777-300ER model. Boeing clearly is pushing for a smoother production ramp up than the difficult gestation of the 787 and is adopting some learnings, best practices, and features from that program.

According to Elizabeth Lund, Vice President and General Manager 777 Program and Everett Site, the 777X production line is being “de-risked” as the company still refines the current 777-300ER in production, so that “this will be a great bridge aircraft. We continue investing in the current 777, not just waiting on the X,” she commented in a recent press briefing at Boeing Media days. Despite improvements in production and design, many in the industry are skeptical that Boeing’s campaigns will allow the current 777 to retain its current rate before the ‘X’ arrives. Airbus has already reduced its production rate for the current A330 in advance of the neo. The 777-X isn’t due to enter production until 2017, with a first flight scheduled in 2018 and EIS in 2020.

Lund assures that the 777 aircraft currently in service “flies repeatedly. It does what it says it´s going to do. It’s something we are really proud of.” Furthermore, she asserted that after 20 years in service  “it is not only the best twin aisle in the industry, but also has proven to be a very reliable aircraft with a 99.5% of dispatch reliability”

Boeing is committed to cut fuel burn reduction by 2%, driven by an increase in seat count to 10 – 14 seats.  This could translate into obtaining an aggregate savings of 5% per seat fuel burn. In order to achieve these goals, Doug Ackerman, 777 Airplane Level Integration Team Chief Engineer disclosed some of the improvements to be applied in the current 777 all of which by the 3rd quarter of next year include:

–       Weight improvements

–       Removal of the tail skid

–       Elevator trim bias

–       Divergent trailing edge

–      Engine improvements on the GE90 power plants resulting in a .5% improvement in fuel burn.

–       L2 boarding door featuring 787 enhanced “arch-entryway” design

–       Reduced cabin noise

–       Business-jet like motorized window shades as in the Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental and Airbus A350

–       New lighter weight galleys made out of composites to take weight out of the airplane

–       Space-saving lavatories

–       Straight aft tracks to add more seats

Boeing is also planning to apply some of the lessons learn during the initial EIS of the 787 Dreamliner.  “We are pulling 777X production benefits earlier into current 777 to work the bugs out early, de-risking the program.” Lessons learned from 787 program where we institute new technology but not new production techniques” said Lund.

Although there were initial concerns on how the re-engineered version of the triple 7 would cannibalize the existing logbook of the current production models, Lund dismissed these fears. “The 777-300ER is an excellent bridge airplane. The enhanced ER version before the 777X featuring better fuel burn and an improved passenger cabin makes the version a valuable airplane during the bridge. We believe that this is a great competitor to the (Airbus) A350-1000.” Boeing confirms these bridge features were key to reaching a deal with United Airlines for ten 777-300ERs.

A Futuristic Production Line

Boeing reports steadily improved production flow. During a tour of the 777 production line, Director of Manufacturing of 777 operations disclosed that production flow has “improved by 2 days this year. Production of the 777 in the factory moving Final Assembly Line takes 46 days, followed by approximately 30 days on the field before delivery”. There are no plans to increase the current rate. This is a marked increase even since the introduction of the 1.6 inch per hour moving production line, back in 2006. Impressively, the entire wing and fuselage join on the U-shaped line now takes just twenty-four hours.

For an aircraft made from 3 million parts, Boeing is relying on a novel production system focused on the optimizing productivity and mobility, plus the integration of the composite wing fabrication and assembly by applying automated automotive-like manufacturing techniques. According to Jason Clark, Boeing 777/777X Vice President of Operations, “These advanced facilities will be in use by the end of the year will benefit both current 777 and 777X production lines.” The new facilities will have an extension of 325,000 sq.ft. to house the new FAUB—Fuselage Assembly Center, taking the 777 programs into a sophisticated 21st century production line. Boeing says it will be building 100% robotic fuselages with the 773 before the 777-X begins production.

The transition between the 777 and 777X will take between two and three years. Lund said that the goal of the company “is to keep at the 8.3/month (approximately 100 jets per year) current production rate during the production changes, and keep it consistent to the 777X.” Boeing can ‘fire blanks’ in to the system, giving the line buffer room as production line moves. “Our goal in the 777X comes over to existing production line around 2020 from a temporary surge line. This is called the 777X LRIP (Low Rate Initial Production Line). The LRIP is currently occupied by the 787 surge line, but this is being vacated in September for the 777X. Ultimately there will still only be a single final 777-X assembly line as the surge line won’t be permanent. Boeing expects a 5 year overlap with the 777 Classic and 777-X, particularly with the 777 Freighter.

Though the focus of the program was clearly on the 777 Classic, Boeing officials also disclosed a few new features of the 777X including slightly larger windows and extended flight hours and cycles before D checks are required. Later in the week, we will have a look at Boeing’s expansive new Composite Wing Center in Everett.