But with all the technical improvements made to the 747, there was still room for more. In the mid-1980s, Boeing invested in 3D CAD/CAM programs, and by 1989, the company was confident it could reduce the cost of rework caused by part interference and difficulty in properly fitting parts together in the final assembly. Boeing decided to digitally design and pre-assemble its new aircraft entirely on the computer. A year later, the 777 project was launched.

It would mark the first time that designers, manufacturers, tooling personnel, engineers, suppliers, finance personnel, and customers all would work jointly to create the plane’s parts and systems. The data shared and transferred on the network during the design phase totaled more than 1.8 trillion bytes. The 3 million parts were provided by more than 900 suppliers in 17 countries, and were designed and assembled by 238 design/build teams. The first 777 was within just 0.023" of perfect alignment; most airplane parts line up to within a half-inch of each other.

Technologically, the 777 boasts a flyby- wire flight-control system — based on NASA technology developed in the 1970s — that uses wires to carry electrical signals from the pilot’s control wheel, column, and pedals to a primary flight computer, rather than relying on cables to move the ailerons, rudder, and elevator.

The world’s first reusable spacecraft, the Space Shuttle is also the most technologically complex machine ever built. (NASA/Kim Shiflett)

In June of this year, Boeing began assembly of its latest airplane, the 787 Dreamliner, a mid-sized, twin-engine jet that will use 20 percent less fuel than today’s mid-sized planes. As much as 50% of the primary structure — including the fuselage and wings — will be made of composite materials. Health-monitoring systems will allow the plane to monitor itself and report maintenance requirements to ground-based computer systems. It is scheduled to enter service in 2008.

Last month, Airbus marked the first passenger flight of its A380, which seats about 555 passengers, and features highpressure hydraulics and variable-frequency electrical generation — both of which reduce weight and increase system performance. The A380 also incorporates carbon fiber reinforced plastic and composites in the center wing box and rear fuselage, an Autopilot Traffic Collision Avoidance System that provides additional protection to conventional air traffic systems, and Brake-to- Vacate technology, which allows pilots to select an appropriate runway exit when landing and regulate the aircraft’s speed and deceleration accordingly.