Building on its 777-300ER, Boeing is evaluating its next moves in the 300 to 415-seat market, with its conceptual 777-8X/9X, powered by a smaller GE90-derived engine, composite wing, a possible fuselage stretch and shrink and higher economy seating capacity, marking what is likely to become the second major incremental evolution of the 777 family, 15% better than today's aircraft, say those familiar with the studies.
The options to Boeing now coming into focus look to grow the 213ft metallic wingspan of the long-range twin to as much as 234ft (71.3m) with a carbon fiber design, 10ft (3.05m) wider than the 747-8. Initial estimates being evaluated by Boeing point to a lower maximum takeoff weight of around 753,000lbs (342t) for the 777-9X, which would anchor the family and preserving or growing the payload range capability of just under 8,000nm (14,800km) for today's aircraft.
Speaking generally about future changes to the 777 in a recent interview, Larry Loftis, 777 program vice president and general manager said: "We have done a lot of work on looking at what's next, and we have a whole range of different things. We are committed to this airplane, we are committed to this marketplace we have and we are committed to maintaining the role and...the strength in the marketplace we have."
Last week, Emirates CEO Tim Clark, whose 777 fleet is the largest in the world, told Flightglobal the Dubai-based carrier was closely working with Boeing to design the 777-300ER successor, saying the airframer is "ready to rock and roll" with Emirates eager to sign up as launch customer if the final configuration meets its requirements.
Clark is hoping for a 777 that can fly a 50t payload, by its rules, between Dubai and Los Angeles. Today the 777-300ER is payload restricted by 20 seats on that route.
For Boeing's Everett final assembly line, the move would transform significant portions of the 777's manufacturing footprint with the introduction of composite fabrication to the wing's primary structure. New autoclaves, tooling and logistics would be at the heart of adding a 787-style composite wing to the 777.
The 777 program has seen such transformations before, transitioning to a moving U-shaped final assembly line between 2006 and 2010 and continues to refine and consolidate its manufacturing process.
"We're going to continue to evolve this, we're going to be making this airplane for, I believe, decades," says Loftis. "And so we're committed to making those improvements day in and day out, and so we start looking at how when we transform this, where we start making the improvements and how we make them, it does need to dovetail into what those future product strategies look like.
"The one thing about lean is you're never done, so it's kind of like you're measuring yourself against infinity," he says, "I love where we are, we've got great options."
In response to the possible features of the updated 777, Boeing says the 777 family "will benefit from years of additional refinements based on customer input and the application of new 787 technologies before the A350-1000 is scheduled to enter service [in 2017].
"We are confident that, when the market demands it, we can develop and deliver a superior airplane that provides unparalleled value to our customers. We have been working hard on developing options and we feel very comfortable with where we are in that process."
The incremental evolution of the 777 mirrors the aircraft's development life to date, with the introduction of the re-engined and strengthened 777-300ER, -200LR and freighter over the last decade, growing on top of the 777-200, -200ER and -300 of the 1990s. The "Red" life of the aircraft fits within the Piepenbrock framework for optimal product development in a mature market, evolving production systems and designs for long-term process optimization, rather than big "Blue" jumps through all new systems that break with the past.
Though while Loftis acknowledged that change brings disruption, the processes by which you manage those changes can be done in a strategic way:
"If you introduce a huge significant change, you do go back up the learning curve. A new major derivative, a new major thing, in some cases it depends on how widespread it is, you're going to come up that curve again, so you're going to go back up, so you have to learn. So there is some disruption that has to come through that.
"But what lean [manufacturing] does for you is it helps...smooth that [disruption] out. So part of the disruption or learning curve you have is it starts at the very beginning through the engineering and you've got to do all this creation, and we're all human so not everything gets done 100% correct, right?
"And so it does put a little bit of disruption in through the supply chain and to the production system as a whole, but the lean part is that comes in strong is that all you're really doing is working the quality of your processes."
To power the new jet, Boeing and General Electric look to be investigating a scaled down GE90, part of its GE9X study, evaluating a 325cm (128in) diameter fan with a lower 99,500lb thrust, a reduction of 15,500lbs from the 343cm (135in) GE90-115B that powers the 777-300ER today. The engine would draw on technology introduced on the GEnx platforms, as well as implement ceramic matrix composites for the turbine section.
With a late-decade service entry, the larger wing and its increased lift to drag ratio, coupled with the a 10% improvement in specific fuel consumption for the GE9X engine, along with material improvements across the aircraft would aim to improve fuel burn by 15% on a per seat basis.
Boeing is currently studying the entry into service timing of its widebody models to follow the 787-9 in late 2013. In response to the A350-900, Boeing is evaluating the pacing of a larger 787-10X stretch and the 777-8X/9X.
As part of the studies, Boeing is examining optimizing the fuselage around the new larger wing, looking at both a fuselage stretch and a shrink of the 777-300ER. One conceptualization of the -9X would be an additional stretch to the 777-300ER, while the -8X would be a shrink of the 365-seat jet, The 777-8X and -9X would allow Boeing to span the products between the proposed 330-seat 787-10X and 467-seat 747-8.
Inside the cabin, company sources say reshaped fuselage frames will allow a more-comfortable 10-abreast seating in economy class, growing the aircraft's passenger capacity from a nominal 365 to 388 seats for the baseline 777-9X. The frames would be carved closer to the fuselage skin, adding about 10cm (4in) to the cabin width, but widened to maintain their strength.
Further, as part of the study Boeing would offer a new 787-style interior, with LED lighting and larger overhead bins to the type, as it has done with its 747-8 and 737 families. In the cockpit, Boeing is looking at flight deck and avionics updates for future air traffic management systems, as well as systems architecture upgrades that would bring parts of the 787's ARINC 629 standard and increased electrical usage to the 777.
"There are technologies that we're learning and have created and learned from on the 787 and 747," says Loftis, "First of all, do they have a place on the airplane? Or don't they. We're not going to change technology for the sake of changing technology, it has to create value for this airplane."