Building Dreamliner with 3D printing machine

December 6, 2006 in Paris, Franc, Boeing marked the pinnacle of aerospace industry with Boeing’s virtual rollout of the 787 Dreamliner.  “This first-ever virtual rollout, and the PLM technology underlying it, is not simply an animation of the completed airplane, but a virtual simulation and validation of the entire manufacturing process.” [1]

 Product lifecycle management (PLM) is an information management system that manages the whole lifecycle of a product, starting from ideation phase and ending when the product is deposed. By connecting complex processes, human resources, and data across the entire product lifecycle, PLM enables everyone from designers to suppliers to marketing officers to collaborate virtually and in real time.[2]

Boeing is a leading aerospace company that has long been taking pride in its innovation. As the company pointed out: “just as important to Boeing’s success is innovation in how those products are developed, designed, produced and upgraded, and maintained through a lifetime of service”. [3] With PLM, Boeing digitally revolutionized its operation model and the way it developed new products. PLM systems helped Boeing organization in coping with the increasing complexity and engineering challenges of developing new planes for the global competitive markets. We have to bear in mind that Boeing was before this digital revolution a very “traditional” company which has been developing its airplanes on drawing board & blueprint for 80 years!

When working on their 787 Dreamliner model, Boeing board of directors decided to deploy Dassault’s PLM platform due to the all-time success of the all-digital design of the 777. The PLM system included three core softwares: Catia V5 for design work; Delmia for manufacturing partners to simulate production process based on the results of Catia V5; and Enovia, where electronic designs, component and quality specifications was stored in a central tool box and all engineers could access and pull out the information they need whenever they wanted. While this is not the first time PLM has been fully utilized in product development and manufacturing, given the high complexity of Boeing’s products, this is definitely a bold move.

Instead of designing the whole aircraft in-house as tradition, then passing on blueprints of individual parts to suppliers, this time around, Boeing, with PLM systems, had more than 6000 engineers from all over the world working hand in hand throughout the whole process. The collaboration circle was expanded to external forces including sub-suppliers or even customers. This allowed the company to make right decisions from the beginning by taking into consideration production constraints or component update early on and in real time. An example could be that a component supplier could suggest the design team to consider using latest model of fastener which would save 30% of component cost and improve speed up to 5%. [4]

Digital communication platform played an important role in facilitating efficient team work across the globe, enabling decisions to be made at a speed never seen before.

Boeing 787 was also the first plane to be developed fully with 3D printing technology. All the samples and models throughout the development process were 3D printed which helped saving time and rework radically. This technology also made it possible for the company to quickly test different proposals, finding out potential bottle necks or errors in a cost efficient ways. Cost saving and shorter lead time were substantial benefits. PLM was estimated to cut go-to market time for Dreamliner from five years down to four years, enabling Boeing to win more orders with a great amount of revenue. [5]

However, implementing a system like PLM is no simple task. It requires a multi-faceted and continuous streamline of operations from top down and bottom up. PLM at Boeing was a success for multiple reasons: extreme executive support from the top, consistent follow up by project sponsor to team leader, daily monitoring team meetings, high upfront investment cost for training and hardware installation. Airbus, nevertheless, was a struggling example. In fact, PLM was seen as a factor to Airbus’ launch delay. With the same international human resource widespread, with teams in France, Germany and elsewhere working together, unlike its American rival, Airbus failed to set a uniform language for the development work. And the disaster came when two parts of the aircraft ended up being drawn on two different software versions, causing a miss match, which then led to a serious delay.

Going forward, Boeing should invest even more in its workforce to keep them updated with all the digital development. Software fast pace changes together with sophisticated product nature will continue to be a challenge to its engineers. 3D CAD and PLM skill needs to be at the core of the education plan for Boeing staffs.

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[1] Dassault Systemes, “Future of Manufacturing on Display at Virtual Rollout Milestone”,, 2006

[2] Siemens, “What is PLM software”,, retrieved 2016

[3] Diane Stratman and Vicki Hogue, “Product Lifecycle Management changing how Boeing designs, produces, maintains offerings”, Boeing Frontiers online,, 2006

[4] Doug Bartholomew, “Different flight path”, Baselinemag,, 2007

[5] Geoff Nairn, “Benefit of being streamlined”, Financial Times,, 2007

[6] Press Release, “Boeing Signs 10-Year Agreement Extending Deployment of Siemens PLM Software Technology”,, 2012



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  1. Interesting post! This kind of reminded me of the Team New Zealand case in that the simulations allowed them to test different iterations before having them made. I think that the digital age will have a significant impact on airplanes in the future. With the modeling and 3D printing capabilities that will available in the future, I foresee airplanes becoming lighter, faster, safer and cheaper. In fact, I was curious if there were plans to make solar powered airplanes, and there has already been an around the world trip powered only by the sun [1]. The use of solar technology could have a huge impact on an industry that is so dependent on oil.


  2. Rapid prototyping with digital technology has come a long way in the past few years! This is the first time I have heard of its use in such a stringent / regulated development process, but I am excited to hear that Boeing is taking steps to be forward thinking with technology. I also think there is a huge opportunity for Boeing to implement augmented reality systems (such as the Hololens) into its manufacturing operations. The final assembly process for each aircraft in Boeing’s fleet is highly labor intensive. Since the industry is highly regulated and the final product is safety critical, the assembly mechanics must follow strict protocols for each step in the process. They must constantly refer to maintenance manuals, standard work instructions and checklists to confirm that the procedure has been done correctly. Augmented reality, however, could save mechanics a lot of time by showing which steps (visually) the mechanic must complete, streamlining the entire process. Here’s a neat article that explains the potential of augmented reality’s role in manufacturing in more detail!

    1. Sonja I totally agree with your comment. Boeing was one of the first of its industry to fully integrate technology in its product development process which impressed me vastly. And yes the company has been actively invested in research and development specifically in technology development to embrace digital advantages even further. Augmented reality (AR) did not escape the company’s eyes for its substantial benefit. Boeing already looked into how AR can be utilized in its assembly line to enhance its competitiveness. You can find a brief interview with the company in this matter here:

    2. Maniglass, thanks for raising this interesting topic about the digital PLM platform as well as 3D printing of prototype parts.

      Sonja, very interesting idea of using augmented reality in a manufacturing setting. I could see this significantly improving the efficiency of line workers and improving quality. It would also be a way to enable a “heijunka” process like we saw in the Toyota case, where the sequence of parts traveling down the line varies depending on customer demand, instead of by batch. Being able to switch Standard Operating Procedures for each part quickly and seamlessly using an AR headset, for example, would provide both specificity for the sequence of steps each operator needed to perform as well as flexibility to vary the type of part based on customer demand. Similarly, it would also enable quick and easy line balancing by transferring steps in each operator’s SOP across work stations as bottlenecks arise on the line. Great food for thought!

  3. Maniglass,

    Thanks for this post. I’ve found the strategic decisions that Boeing and Airbus have made over the past couple of decades to be very interesting. However, I disagree with your conclusion about the level of success that Boeing has achieved through their outsourcing and modularization. While one could agree with that the decisions to break out their manufacturing into pieces and spreading them globally could have positive long-term results from lessons Boeing learned that could be applied to future models of airplanes, when looking at the 787 in isolation, I believe that Boeing lost more than it gained.

    In fact, if you look at cost and timeline, both of these would indicate that the manufacturing decision to outsource and modularize led to significant delays and cost overruns. The 787 had to be delayed 7 times, was eventually billions of dollars over budget, and was finally released 3 years late [1].

    But the negative consequences are in fact greater than merely time and cost. After launching, due to technical defects partially arising from the non-integrated manufacturing, there were several technical problems including fuel leaks, cabin smoke, and fires from faulty batteries [2]. The decisions to modularize and outsource combined with the amount of highly complex new technology that was being implemented had significant impacts, such as the faulty batteries which required all 50 operating 787s to be grounded in 2013.

    While I think we have yet to see the benefits of Boeing’s decision to outsource and modularize their planes, when looking at the 787 alone, I would argue that their decision was a net negative. However, as I said, I agree than in the abstract, there are enormous benefits to such decisions, and if Boeing applies the lessons they learned on the 787 to future development and manufacturing, Boeing will be able to truly benefit from those decisions to a degree that outweighs the price they paid on the 787.

    [1] January 2013, Forbes “What Went Wrong at Boeing?”
    [2] January 2013, Harvard Business Review “The 787’s Problems Run Deeper Than Outsourcing”

  4. Maniglass, in your research, were you able to identify how the costs of this extensive PLM network were distributed between Boeing, its designers, suppliers, and manufacturers? In your text you mentioned that over 6000 engineers were utilizing the same PLM database in order to develop and design the 787. I quick look into PLM licenses suggest that per seat licenses can be up to $6k, database licenses can be $200k, and other maintenance applications such as Product Portfolio Management can cost up to $1.5M. [1] Considering these costs alone, the system would have cost $37.7M, let alone any IT accommodations that would have to be considered. I would assume that PLM is not always an exclusive content set, such that if a supplier had the infrastructure necessary to run a PLM application, they could easily develop simulations with other customers as well. With this being said, was Boeing willing to cover the costs of this implementation across all of its partners? Or, did they provide some incentives for suppliers to join the project and purchase their own licenses, in order to spread the costs across the supply chain?

    Typically a license of this type would be shared among users within a given company, so it is very possible that the estimates that I provided above are inflated. However, the wonder of who bore the costs for these upgrades still applies. I imagine that Boeing probably fronted the costs for this effort, which makes me doubt whether their short term ROI on this effort is positive.

    [1] Product Life Cycle Management,, Accessed November 2016.

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