The 737 Platform
One of the tracks at Level Up 2019 was on Build. How do we build our products for the future? We’re going to have bigger customers with different needs, we’re going to need to share our product capabilities and we’re going to have to do all that whilst continuing to invite. This blog post is an adaptation of the introduction to that theme.
The 737 is the most successful commercial jetliner in the world. Originally launched in 1964, variants continue to produced this day.
Now, you’ve probably got two questions at this point.
- Given recent events, why are you talking about the 737?
- Why do Boeing planes start with a 7?
I’m going to choose to focus on the latter of these questions (for more details on the former see Boeing 737 MAX).
After World War II had ended, Boeing sat back and realised it was a military company. With peace came a lack of further development so William Allen (Boeing’s President) decided to pursue a diversification strategy to broaden the addressable market for the firm. As part of this strategy, each department received a number (imagine how motivating this must have been!). 500s represents engines, 600s represented rockets and missiles and finally 700s were set aside for Jet Transport aircraft.
The first plane under this moniker was the 707. Why did it start and end with a 7? Is it something to do with the angle of the wings? Nope, it’s nothing so clever! It’s simply that marketing thought it would sound cool.
Boeing’s goal with the 737 was to create a new design optimised for rapid turn around. The design for the Boeing 737 was short and stubby. It was about half the size of previous planes such as the 707 and 727. This earned the plane the nickname the Baby Boeing.
The plane was cleverly designed to use as many parts as possible from previous generations of plane. In fact, nearly 60% of the plane was made up of components from both the 727 and the original 707. This led to economies of scale. It was easier to get operators trained with the equipment, easier to get safety certification and easier for pilots to adapt.
Despite all of this, the original Boeing 737 took a long time to get delivered. In fact, it led up to its name and took 9 months to be delivered.
Let’s fast forward to the modern day. Boeing have not only invested in shared components but also invested in their platform to satisfy higher demand.
Nowadays a Boeing plane is vastly more complicated than the original. A modern 737 consists of 367,000 parts from over 1000 suppliers. There are over 50km of electrical wiring in each plane! This has all got to be put together, tested and delivered quickly because demand is higher than over before.
You don’t get a sense of it from the pictures, but this is a continuously moving platform that moves forward at about 5cm/minute. A fuselage is loaded at one end, and by the time the plane reaches the other end it just needs a lick of paint and a test-flight!
This investment has led to the time taken to produce a 737 being taken down from 9 months to just 9 days!
Not only is the 737 quick to produce, but it’s easy to adapt. There’s a 737 variant for almost every taste from freight haulage, to transatlantic routes to even being able to take off on gravel. There’s a 737 to suit every taste. All built from that same philosophy of sharing parts, rapid to build and easy to adapt.
So, what’s my point with all of this? Well simply that Boeing adapted incredibly well to the same challenge that we have. We can take inspiration from that by building our code to be shared, investing in our delivery pipelines and continuing to make our code easy to adapt.