Boeing has appointed a digital engineering chief to lead preparations for both the design of its next all-new commercial jet and the integrated production system that will build it, the company announced internally Wednesday.

Linda Hapgood, who joined Boeing in 1998 as a systems engineer straight out of university in her native Australia, will lead the effort.

Boeing chief engineer Greg Hyslop, Commercial Airplanes CEO Stan Deal and Chief Information Officer Susan Doniz said in a joint memo to employees that for “our next BCA development program” the company will “create a digital environment where the next new airplane and production system can be designed together.”

The idea is that both Boeing and its suppliers will use a single source of definitive design data for the airplane and its production system.

“This effort will determine the standards and interfaces by which we are linked together with a digital thread through design, test, certification, build and support,” the memo said.

The move is the first hint that Boeing may be preparing for a possible launch of a new airplane as soon as the pandemic’s impact on its business eases — shooting for an entry into service toward the end of this decade rather than the mid-2030s, which is the target schedule talked about by rival Airbus.

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However, it’s just a hint.

While the appointment may mean a new jet program is nearer than some anticipated following all the setbacks of the past two years, it could be little more than Boeing signaling to the financial markets that even in the midst of this crisis, it is thinking of the future.

Boeing spokesperson Jessica Kowal cautioned that “it isn’t a program launch but does represent preparation for a future new commercial or defense program.”

The promise of Black Diamond

For the past five years, Boeing has talked up the advances it has made with what is called “model-based engineering,” which centralizes all information about a project in a digital model. Boeing used the code name “Black Diamond” when the project was under development.

In the early 1990s, Boeing’s 777 was its first new airplane designed on a digital model rather than on paper blueprints. Moving beyond that, today Boeing aims to create its next new airplane design as well as the production system and the supply chain all in one digital model, so that all can be tested virtually before factories are built and hardware manufactured.

Boeing has touted early success with this approach on two recent defense-side programs: the T-7 jet fighter trainer, a joint venture with Saab of Sweden; and the Loyal Wingman, a stealth fighter drone designed to team in the air with manned fighter jets.

In 2018, the Air Force selected the T-7 Red Hawk as the combat trainer for its fighter pilots, a $9.2 billion contract.

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In May, Boeing boasted of a “historic moment” when the front and aft fuselage sections of the first T-7 were joined perfectly “in less than 30 minutes — a testament to the digital heritage of the U.S. Air Force’s first ‘eSeries’ aircraft and witness to the benefits of model-based engineering and 3D design.”

However, in June, Aviation Week reported a schedule delay to the T-7 flight test program and a budget cut by U.S. Air Force officials, “along with the discovery of a previously undisclosed aerodynamic issue that raised fresh questions about Boeing’s assertions of the benefits of using a revolutionary design process.”

The Loyal Wingman program, based at Boeing Australia, also appears to have suffered a setback.

Last month, the Air Force, which previously included Loyal Wingman among three drone prototypes for its “Skyborg” air fighter teaming program, awarded contracts to the two from unmanned systems suppliers Kratos and General Atomics. Boeing’s standing in that program was left uncertain.

Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman has revealed a new drone candidate for the same role. The Chinese are developing a similar system.

Boeing is forging ahead with Loyal Wingman. This month, it announced that it will build a manufacturing facility for the unmanned fighter in Toowoomba, Australia, the company’s first aircraft assembly facility of its kind outside of North America.

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Two new leaders in charge

Hapgood most recently was vice president of engineering practices, processes and tools, where she led Boeing’s development and implementation of digital engineering.

Before that, she was chief operating officer of a Boeing joint venture with French engine maker Safran that aimed to develop auxiliary power units. When the market collapse due to the pandemic forced Boeing to shelve near-term plans for the planned New Mid-market Airplane (NMA), the Safran joint venture was suspended earlier this year.

And before that, Hapgood was chief engineer for airplane systems on the 747 jet program and on the 767 freighter and military tanker programs in Everett.

Boeing’s leadership memo said Hapgood will be supported by Danen Barnhart, who will manage IT and data analytics for the project.

Barnhart has a computer science degree from the University of Washington and has been serving as senior IT director at Commercial Airplanes. He was charged with implementing the planned digital transformation for the NMA before that was put on the back burner.