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EVERETT — The future of Boeing can be seen, but it can’t be touched.
A virtual-reality tour set up in a studio at Boeing’s Everett plant reveals the interior of the 777X, the company’s next-generation airplane that’s still years from production.
It’s not Boeing employees who created this. It’s designers from longtime Boeing collaborator Teague.
The industrial design firm is pioneering the use of virtual reality for aviation to help its designers understand the physical space of new planes and to help customers visualize what’s coming.
“(Boeing) needs to bring customers and show them what they’re going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, or billions of dollars, on if it comes to a large order,” said Murray Camens, a Teague vice president and head of the company’s Aviation Studios. “We can do that virtually.”
It’s not unusual for a Boeing contractor to work on a project as sensitive as the 777X. Teague began collaborating with the company 70 years ago and has been deeply involved with every plane Boeing has designed since the 707.
In fact, Boeing relies on thousands of suppliers to help with critical phases of production, said Boeing spokeswoman Mary Miller. Supplier-provided components and assemblies — or, in the case of Teague, intellectual property — make up about 65 percent of the cost of Boeing products.
Last year, Boeing Commercial Airplanes alone spent more than $40 billion purchasing parts and work from about 1,500 suppliers.
In Boeing’s early years, one of its first suppliers was Seattle’s Western Drygoods, which provided the company with Irish linens that were used on the fuselage and wings of airplanes. Since then, suppliers have entered and left the company’s supply chain. Teague stands as one of a small group of suppliers that have continued since the early years. Others include UTC Aerospace Systems and Rockwell Collins.
Walter Dorwin Teague founded his company in 1926 in New York doing what was then called styling and now is known as industrial design.
Teague helped his first client, Eastman Kodak Co., design cameras, retail locations and even World’s Fair exhibits. (Later industrial design achievements at Teague would include the Pringles canister.)
In 1946, Boeing hired Teague to work on the interior design of the Boeing Stratocruiser. Designer Frank Del Giudice came to the Puget Sound area on a three-month contract and never left. He became the Boeing creative lead for Teague and established Teague’s first Seattle studio.
With the Boeing 707, which launched a little more than a decade after the Stratocruiser, Teague became the design firm for every Boeing plane through the 787 and now the 777X.
“Everything you see when you walk into a plane, Teague has touched it,” Camens said. “If it’s a Boeing airplane, we have literally thought it through, conceived it, conceptualized it, made a mock-up of it, developed it into a physical full size and supported the engineering of Boeing to actually develop it into a production piece and then followed it into production.
“Then you have the airline that comes and they purchase that airplane,” he said. “And they customize that interior with their colors, their finishes, their surfaces, their branding, and we support that part of the process, as well.”
Teague now counts Boeing as its largest customer, although the company does design for others, including Microsoft, Starbucks and Intel. In 1997, Teague moved its headquarters to Seattle. The company runs studios in Boeing’s Everett and Renton plants.
“If you think of 70 years of relationship, we’ve been in many buildings across the Boeing campuses both inside and outside the fence,” Camens said. “We’re inside the fence right now and this is where we like to be because it’s about collaboration and co-creation. What better way to do it than inside the home of the client?”
In Everett, the modern, open office floor studio sticks out in an aging warehouse. About 100 designers work in the space on everything from the nose to the rudder of planes. The designers have even played a major role in the custom liveries that have become so popular, such as the Seahawks livery unveiled before the Super Bowl two years ago and the “Star Wars”-themed livery with R2-D2.
Boeing relies on Teague to find, attract and train talent from all over the world, said Camens, who is Australian. His designers are constantly looking for new colors, new materials and new designs. At the moment, one of the major influences in aircraft interiors is lighting, Camens said. It can help calm people’s senses as passengers board and fly on an airplane.
“It creates a changing environment,” Camens said. “It creates a differentiation. When it comes to competitive differentiation, lighting is fairly easy to change out.”
From the Boeing 707, which was the company’s first jetliner, Teague has created models of aircraft interiors where potential customers can walk down aisles, sit in seats and even eat meals. The company employs 30 builders creating mock-ups in Everett.
Virtual reality is seen as a natural next step, said Eric Klein, Teague’s design visualization manager. The technology has been around since the 1950s, but it was mostly just two small television screens inside goggles, Klein said. The technology has finally begun to become refined in the past few years with the Kickstarter-funded Oculus Rift goggles. While the goggles are mostly used in the gaming industry, Teague is adapting them to aviation.
“The best thing about it is the sense of scale that you get in being immersed in the space,” Klein said. “We use it as a design tool to actually understand the environment we’re working in and then translate the work we like into physical mock-ups so we can work in the virtual and work in the physical and understand faster where we should be headed.”
Camens said he sees this as another way for his company to provoke discussion.
“The future is not just going to happen,” Camens said. “We create the future. I think as designers, we are really looking to the future and then we can back cast it. That’s what the future is going to be. This is what we’re going to do to get there.”
Boeing gives 13 supplier-of-the-year awards, and only 12 in 2015. Teague has won a supplier-of-the-year award three times over the past five years. This year’s award was re-designed into a black monolithic piece that comes together in the middle magnetically.
“The award is in two parts,” Camens said. “You have Boeing and you have the supplier. It’s about the collaboration between the two, and you can click them together to make a better whole, of course.”
Teague designed the award.