Sustainability is built in
Boeing’s product life cycle, every step of the way
April 16, 2021 in Innovation, Technology
By Lisa Maull, Paul McElroy and Joanna Wingbermuehle, Boeing writers
In California, the low hum of a 3D printer stops — a satellite part is unveiled that will soon orbit in space. A unique ecosystem in the United Arab Emirates makes airplane fuel using land where food won’t grow and using water we can’t drink. Excess carbon fiber from making wing components for the new Boeing 777X could become a laptop case or even a wind turbine blade — and possibly be used by the next generation of innovators to make the world a better place.
To survive and thrive in today’s world, aerospace must consider the world itself. From a customer’s initial request to the creation of the aircraft or product to its use and eventual retirement, every stage along the way can be engineered with Earth and all its inhabitants in mind.
This is Boeing’s life-cycle approach: Design, build and deliver each of its products and services with the highest standards of safety, quality and integrity.
“Whether we’re finding solutions to keep our employees and passengers safe, reduce our carbon footprint, source responsibly or serve our communities — we ensure that sustainability is built in during every step of the product’s life cycle.” —Dr. Brian Yutko, chief engineer, Sustainability and Future Mobility
Sustainability starts at the beginning and never stops.
DEMAND/SALES — Airlines have always demanded airplanes with the highest fuel efficiency and best environmental performance possible. That continues today as demand for lower emissions has increased — and airlines have accelerated the retirement of older, less-efficient aircraft during the pandemic. Through technological improvements and innovation, Boeing calculates that each generation of its commercial airplanes is 15% to 25% more efficient than the generation before.
“Improving efficiency makes flying more economical for airlines, affordable for more travelers and better for the environment.” —Sheila Remes, vice president, Environmental Sustainability
DESIGN/TECHNOLOGY — A majority of the environmental impact of a technology’s or product’s life cycle is determined in the design phase. Boeing embeds sustainability into its design process and conducts life-cycle assessments to ensure aircraft design and new technologies are safe and sustainable.
“There is no time like the present to design for a sustainable future. Our design decisions today influence the raw materials we procure, the parts we machine, and the products we build and fly for decades to come.” —Christin Datz, lead engineer, Environmental Sustainability, Product Development, and Boeing’s 2020 Environment Champion
Addition by Subtraction
Additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing, is a process that creates sustainable products by using less raw material (reducing mining, conversion and transportation), printing at the point of use and reducing the weight, thereby minimizing the carbon footprint during the end-to-end life cycle.
A recent example realized by Boeing is the additive-manufactured deployable ion engine mount for a recently launched 702MP satellite, made from powder-bed laser fusion of aluminum alloy AlSi10Mg.
“Additive manufacturing allowed an optimized design, which placed material only where it was required to support the loads, resulting in a 28-pound reduction in weight of the part while simultaneously eliminating almost all of the scrap associated with traditional manufacturing.” —Dr. Melissa Orme, vice president, Boeing Additive Manufacturing
MATERIALS/FEEDSTOCKS — When selecting the materials that go into its products, Boeing identifies opportunities for eliminating, capturing and recycling solvents and chemicals while developing alternative materials, primers and coatings. Boeing is also developing materials with increased recycled and renewable content.
“Matter matters. We have the opportunity to design products with more-efficient materials — selecting materials that can be reused and recycled. When we pay attention to the materials used early in the process, there is so much we can do to benefit the planet.” —Dr. Tia Benson Tolle, director, Advanced Materials and Sustainability, Product Development
PARTS — Boeing is committed to working with suppliers to source responsibly; create economic opportunity for diverse communities; and drive industry sustainability progress in social, environmental and governance aspects. So sustainability is not just responsibly using resources in terms of the planet; it’s also responsibly obtaining resources for those who live on Earth now and in the future.
“A Boeing commercial aircraft is comprised of millions of parts — 2.3 million for the 787. Whether the part is made internally or comes from our suppliers, each is an opportunity to consider our impact and how we can continue to drive towards environmental considerations. Every little change matters and is a step toward our future, from the nuts and bolts to the engines to the people who provide the parts.” —Erin Gutierrez, manager, Environmental Sustainability & External Collaboration, Product Development
Plan of Action
Boeing Australia has a growing commitment to creating a better future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, in part by working with Indigenous-owned businesses through Boeing Reconciliation Action Plans and maximizing Australian industry content in the supply chain.
As of April 2021, Boeing Defence Australia achieved more than 17 million Australian dollars in accumulated Indigenous supply chain spend since 2012 as part of its growing relationship with Supply Nation, which connects companies with Indigenous suppliers like the Indigenous Defence & Infrastructure Consortium. One of many milestones was Boeing’s work with the first Indigenous-owned business in Australia to become qualified to audit or certify under AS9100, the international quality management system standard for the aerospace industry.
“Diversity is core to The Boeing Company’s values, allowing us to provide innovative solutions to our customers. Our Reconciliation Action Plan is a clear demonstration of our determination to prepare Indigenous-owned businesses for growth in new and existing domestic and international markets.” —Scott Carpendale, vice president and managing director, Boeing Defence Australia
BUILD/TEST — Boeing continues to improve the sustainability of its manufacturing processes and is committed to reducing emissions across its operations, including at production sites. The 787 Final Assembly building in South Carolina, for example, has nearly 10 acres of solar panels on its roof. Boeing South Carolina is also a zero-waste-to-landfill site, meaning everything from packaging to paper cups is recycled, reused or repurposed.
To support sustainable manufacturing, Boeing works with U.K.-based ELG Carbon Fibre Ltd. to recycle excess carbon-fiber material from the airplane assembly process. This first-of-its-kind partnership prevents about 1 million pounds of waste a year from going to landfills. The renewed carbon fiber is used by manufacturers to make computer laptop cases, automobile parts and other products. These efforts are rapidly developing into a scalable supply chain.
“After a decade working with academia and industry, there are now solutions to the excess carbon-fiber composite waste challenge. Removing the cured resin without damaging the valuable aerospace-grade carbon fiber frees it up to provide the same performance attributes we value to non-aerospace applications.” —Pete George, project engineer and Associate Technical Fellow, Advanced Materials, Product Development
Eye on Efficiency
Boeing’s newest twin-aisle airplane, the 777X, began flight testing in 2020. Through advanced aerodynamics, latest-generation carbon-fiber composite wings and advanced General Electric GE9X engines, the 777X is designed to be the most fuel-efficient twin-engine jetliner in the world.
USE — Boeing’s responsibility and support doesn’t end when an aircraft rolls out of the factory. Given most carbon emissions of the aircraft occur during use, Boeing continues to focus on a portfolio of solutions, including operational efficiencies, new technologies and renewable energy transition to reduce carbon emissions during this stage of the life cycle.
For example, Boeing’s pioneering role in making sustainable aviation fuel a reality dates back to 2008, when test flights conducted with airline customers helped gain certification for its commercial use. The ecoDemonstrator program has used sustainable aviation fuel on each of its flight test programs since 2012 and also conducts test flights for fuels that are not yet approved for commercial use to help expand the potential sustainable fuel supply base.
In 2018, the ecoDemonstrator, in collaboration with FedEx, flew the world’s first commercial airplane using 100% sustainable aviation fuels.
“Boeing has been a pioneer in making sustainable aviation fuels a reality. We were centrally involved with initial testing and approval for commercial use and continue to research ways to scale up supplies from different feedstocks.” —Sean Newsum, director, Sustainability Strategy
Boeing uses data analytics to help airlines plan the most efficient flight routing. The Fuel Dashboard service analyzes how airplanes are flown to determine optimal speeds, altitudes and other factors to improve efficiency and reduce emissions. Apps for pilots provide real-time information about weather and traffic, enabling faster rerouting when conditions change during the flight.
Boeing also works with air navigation service providers on procedures such as continuous descent approaches and infrastructure upgrades to implement GPS-based navigation for more direct routings and better airspace efficiency to accommodate future growth.
“Within Boeing’s digital services, we offer several products that help our customers increase efficiency and reduce fuel consumption, so their fleets operate more sustainably. Products such as Jeppesen Fuel Dashboard, Emissions Reporter and Wind Updates give airlines and pilots visibility into real-time effects on their fuel usage and emissions so they can reduce them, which is better for the environment and for the bottom line.” —Duane Wehking, Boeing Global Services vice president, Digital Solutions and IT Services
While in use, airplanes need to have their coatings removed about every five years. Instead of using a sander or chemical process, Boeing developed lasers to remove the paint, which improves the quality and speed of the work while also reducing waste and the ergonomic risk to employees.
“Laser ablation offers a paradigm shift away from traditional methods that pose risks to people and the environment. Lasers are attractive because right-sized systems can meet or exceed current rates while saving cost and reducing more than 90% of hazardous waste generated by other methods. That makes them a key part of Boeing’s strategy as an environmental leader.” —Dr. Kady Gregersen, research engineer, Chemical Technology; Associate Technical Fellow; and Boeing Designated Expert for laser depainting
END OF SERVICE — Boeing’s commercial airplane designs enable parts disassembly and materials recovery. As a result, Boeing airplanes are nearly 90% reusable or recyclable by weight.
Recertified parts from retired airplanes help customers reduce the cost of repairs while offering cost-efficient quality solutions. Boeing Global Services provides access to this inventory, called used serviceable material — or USM. Boeing recertifies the parts, ensuring quality.
Materials have been harvested from retired Boeing airplanes, including the 767 and 737, as well as non-Boeing-manufactured aircraft. Boeing is a founding member of the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association, the leading global organization for developing and promoting the safe and sustainable management of component and aircraft circularity in the aviation sector. One dismantled airplane can provide up to 6,000 parts.
“Boeing is contributing to reducing waste by recertifying and reusing airplane parts. In addition to retired airplanes providing recycled parts for in-service aircraft, we are helping customers reduce the cost of repairs by offering cost-efficient, quality options for parts at reduced prices and more inventory access.” —John Brooks, senior manager, Used Serviceable Material
The future is bright — and digital.
Some solutions affect many aspects of the life cycle. There is a particularly prevalent intersection between digital engineering and sustainability. The U.S. Air Force designated the T-7A Red Hawk advanced trainer as the first in its digital “eSeries.” Embracing model-based engineering and 3D design tools, the T-7A achieved an 80% reduction in assembly hours and a 75% increase in first -time engineering quality, as well as cut software development time in half. With digital engineering, more testing is done in the simulator.
“We had already flown the [T-7A] in the simulator using the exact same digital software many times rehearsing for [the first] flight. So when it comes to the real thing, we know what to expect — the jet flew exactly as it was supposed to, no surprises.” —Dan Draeger, chief tactical aircraft test pilot, Boeing Test & Evaluation
Boeing has also used this type of innovation on the Airpower Teaming System uncrewed aircraft being developed with the Royal Australian Air Force. The Loyal Wingman recently completed its first test flight under the supervision of a Boeing test pilot monitoring the aircraft from a ground control station at the Woomera Range Complex.
As Boeing ensures its products and services are safe and sustainable for future generations, it will continue to work with industry and community partners worldwide. Boeing has joined with the International Civil Aviation Organization and other industry groups, academia and cross-sector businesses to tackle global challenges. Among these many partnerships, Boeing is a founding member of Villanova RISE (Resilient Innovation through Sustainable Engineering) Forum and member of the MIT Climate and Sustainability Consortium.
Every sector, business, technology, researcher and country has a part to play — a shared responsibility. Global challenges require global solutions.
Learn more about Boeing’s sustainability efforts