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787 Design Highlights

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A dream lab for techies

By Bernard Choi

The Seattle lab where the 787 Dreamliner's new cabin features are being tested is a techie's dream.

Boeing 747-8 takes off for the first time

BOEING PHOTO BY BERNARD CHOI

The dynamic LED lights offer a huge spectrum of colors that can simulate a full-flying day in the cabin.

There are rows of machines, each covered by seemingly hundreds of buttons and switches. In between are dozens of computers and television monitors. Nearby, windows go from light to dark at the push of a button. Strands of cables weave in and out, connecting the gadgets. All of this hardware is bathed in rainbow colors emanating from the racks of tiny lights.

Boeing engineers navigate this sea of electronics every day so they can ensure passengers will have an experience unlike any other when the 787s enter service.

"Turning on a light bulb is easy. It's figuring out why it isn't on, that's where the design work is," said Systems Engineer Roland Schafer.

Schafer and his colleagues have spent years designing and testing the innovative cabin systems for the 787 -- innovations such as dynamic, light-emitting diode lights.

"We simulate airplane behavior...so anything that can go wrong, that's what we're working on," - Diana Bonilla, systems engineer

"These lights allow us to not only change the intensity but the colors," explained Sean Sullivan, senior manager, 787 Cabin Systems. "We'll be able to set whatever mood we want onboard the airplane."

Boeing 747-8 takes off for the first time

BOEING PHOTO

The spacious and innovative 787 Dreamliner will offer an unrivaled passenger experience.

Then there are the passenger windows that lighten and darken on command.

"These windows have a gel that is sandwiched between two very thin panes of glass, and when you apply a voltage across the glass, the gel turns different opacities," said Sullivan.

These and other features require thousands of parts and are controlled by multiple software programs and databases. Schafer said they all have to work together "so that the right hand and the left tie in and are matched up. If one piece is off, you don't get the expected the results."

So the engineers put the systems through all kinds of scenarios. With the windows, for example, the challenge was to set up the computer network that allows flight attendants to manage all or just some of the windows at once.

"We simulate airplane behavior," said Systems Engineer Diana Bonilla. "We perform power interrupts, so anything that can go wrong, that's what we're working on."

Boeing 747-8 takes off for the first time

BOEING PHOTO BY BERNARD CHOI

Boeing systems engineers repeatedly test the software that controls the 787 cabin systems. Here, an engineer adjusts the in-flight entertainment systems.

"If the wiring is wrong and a window is failing to get addressed and the attendant cannot command the window, how do we catch that and how do we anticipate any problem?" asked Systems Engineer Ali Mawani.

The process is repeated for the LED lights, new digital flight attendant phones, in-flight entertainment systems and so on.

"This is the kind of system where one person can't do it all. It's a collective group of people and each person is a subject matter expert. They work together as a team," said Schafer.

Schafer says he can see the finish line. But the work won't end any time soon. Once the engineering team is done validating the 787 features, they'll move on to testing the cabin systems for the new 747-8 Intercontinental.

"It's what we do," Schafer said.