Lighter Jets, Faster Boats

Lead Line — December 2003
By Richard Thiel

Lighter Jets, Faster Boats
Boeing’s strategy is notable because part of it could be applied to boats.
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An interesting drama is playing out in the commercial aircraft industry that could have implications for boatbuilders. Airbus and Boeing are developing radically different next-generation aircraft to respond to what they each see as the future of commercial aviation.

Airbus believes a dearth of gates and landing slots will force airlines to cram people into very large aircraft that take them between hubs. Consequently, its airplane of the future is the A380, a twin-deck, two-aisle, four-engine behemoth that will seat 555 passengers in the standard three-class configuration.

Boeing believes the future lies in smaller, fuel-efficient aircraft taking passengers from destination to destination instead of hub. Smaller planes will be easier to fill, it says, and superior fuel efficiency will allow them to travel as far as either a 747 or A380. Thus Boeing’s airliner of the future is the 7E7 Dreamliner, a two-engine, two-aisle design with a range of 7,000 to 8,000 NM and seating 200 to 250 passengers.

There’s a lot riding on who prevails, but Boeing’s strategy is notable because part of it could conceivably be applied to boats. It aims to achieve a new level of fuel efficiency via more efficient engines and next-generation composites that will reduce weight by as much as 20 percent compared to conventional aluminum construction. As for engines, Boeing enjoys an advantage no boatbuilder has. The world’s largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft can virtually dictate to jet engine builders such as GE, Rolls Royce, and Pratt and Whitney. In fact, Boeing told them that if they wanted to sell engines for the 7E7, they’d have to come up with significantly more efficient engines. It would be wonderful if Sea Ray or Feadship could exert such leverage, but both are mere blips on the screen of corporations like General Motors (which builds the basic engines for MerCruiser) and MTU.

More applicable is Boeing’s construction strategy, by which 60 percent of aluminum components on today’s aircraft will be replaced with composites. Indeed, the 7E7 will be the first commercial jet with both wings and fuselage made of composites. The main material will be a blend of graphite and epoxy resin, and the wings will be a titanium-graphite mix, but a good deal of aluminum will still be used. In fact, Boeing has found that in many cases aluminum components were lighter than composites and, just as surprising, in some cases composites were not significantly more expensive than aluminum.

Boeing engineers have great faith in the quality and strength of very light composite components. But just to cover their bets, they’ve designed a network of sensors that will provide early warning of structural problems, obviating costly visual inspection.

Advanced construction won’t be totally responsible for the 7E7’s reduced weight; lighter hydraulics will play a part, too. But this airplane is proof that advanced composites can result in significant weight reduction at a reasonable cost and with no trade-off in structural strength. More important, it announces that the next generation of practical composite construction has arrived. The same breakthroughs that will create the world’s most fuel-efficient jetliner could also create a new generation of boats and yachts that can go faster and farther on every gallon of fuel.

This article originally appeared in the November 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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