Boeing’s Dreamliner is an Innovation Rock Star

May 10, 2012

Innovation happens on different levels; it can be big or small. Both are embodied in Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner which played the role of rock star at The Atlantic’s Innovation Summit earlier this week.

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney talked about how the plane’s great leap forward is its construction from composites—carbon fiber and resins--that make it lighter and 20% more fuel efficient. That matters with high oil prices and airlines’ concern for controlling costs. Yet the plane is strong enough to have large windows and a lower cabin pressure making it more comfortable for passengers.

We can’t forget the smaller, less-obvious innovations that combine to make the Dreamliner state-of-the-art:

  • Winglets to save fuel.
  • Heads up displays (HUDs) like those found in fighter jets give pilots quick access to avionic information.
  • Electronics dim passenger windows.
  • Using robots to make the fuselage by applying layer after layer of composite tape.
  • Coordinating global manufacturing.

All these innovations aren’t world-changing on their own or apparent to the general public, but combined they result in a new direction in air travel.

At the summit, McNerney talked about how initially the Dreamliner was designed for speed, flying passengers at Mach 1. But after the September 11 attacks, the changed travel landscape, and the rise in oil prices, airlines wanted a plane that was more fuel-efficient. Boeing was flexible as an organization, listened to their customers, and retooled the Dreamliner’s design. "Our customers built that airplane,” said McNerney.

How can big and small innovations be nourished in the U.S.? McNerney suggested that government invest in basic research and education, create a regulatory environment that balances health and safety with economic growth, reform the tax system (“the simpler, the better” in his words), and reform the visa system to allow the best talent to work in the U.S.

Like Legos stacked together brick by brick, innovations big and small came together to create an amazing plane. Fostering that innovative spirit will inspire us to create more Dreamliners in the future.

Check out the photos I took of a tour of the Dreamliner. Do you think this plane is the future of air travel? Leave your answer in the comments.

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