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Boeing engineer: Plastics to play key role in improved aircraft interiors

By: Bill Bregar

October 1, 2012

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. (Oct. 1, 1:30 p.m. ET) — Commercial airline passengers will be in for a treat when they fly, as Boeing engineer Jim Griffing described sleek plane interiors with smooth, rounded lines and mellow lighting, speaking at the SPE Thermoforming Conference.

He showed images of the designs for a cabin of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, sporting larger overhead storage bins and smooth, curving lines outlined with sleek lighting.

Thermoforming already plays a major role in sidewall panels and other parts, said Griffing, a 25-year Boeing veteran. One of his first projects at there was to analyze thermoformed parts for meeting fire requirements.

Boeing has one thermoforming machine to make spare parts, and outsources the rest, he said.

Griffing is the current president of the Society of Plastics Engineers.

Boeing wants to improve the flying experience—and not just with more overhead storage space, to speed passenger loading and unloading. Passengers will notice right when they enter the plane. Right now, you have to squeeze past the crowded food and beverage area. But on new planes, the service counter will be set apart, in a restaurant-style island.

Griffing said that lighting will change dramatically. The trend, he said, is to use lighter, white surface colors on the ceiling, and use blue lights, or other colors to set the mood overhead. The effects can be changed on long flights to offset jet lag, he said.

“Our designers are really driving toward that white-white color,” he said.

Airline designers would love to have translucent ceilings and luggage compartments, he said, but added that the materials will have to meet fire and heat release standards. Griffing said some suppliers are working on that application.

Another wish-list feature for airline interiors: sidewall panels that incorporate the sound-deadening insulation right inside the panel. Currently, the installation is installed first, covering wiring, then the thermoformed panel goes on top. That makes it hard to get access to the wiring for maintenance and to fix problems, often requiring crews to remove seats, he said.

“We’d love to be able to snap these in and out,” Griffing said.

He said first-class seats are a good opportunity for thermoforming, since airlines design special marketing there. Thermoforming also plays a key role in flight deck components, a critical area but one with low volumes. Griffing called flight decks “a great opportunity for thermoforming.”