The B787 Dreamliner: memories, and innovation

I wrote this piece for the Irish Times on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner issues,  prompted in part by my own experiences when IONA was a major supplier into the IT systems for Boeing’s commercial aircraft manufacturing (the gloriously-named DCAC/MRM programme).  It was published on 4th February last.

Whilst we in Ireland fret about the damage to the international perception of our well-regarded standards of food manufacturing, in the United States similar concerns have arisen about the international perception of their high standards of civilian aircraft manufacturing. The new pride of Boeing, the B-787 Dreamliner, has been grounded indefinitely. There have been various faults reported: a cracked windscreen, and fuel leaks. But in reaction to an emergency landing of an All Nippon Airlines B-787 due to in-cabin smoke, and an on-board fire in a Japanese Airlines B-787 parked at a gate at Boston Logan airport during routine cabin cleaning, authorities world wide have indefinitely forbidden any further flights by any of the 50 B-787 aircraft so far delivered. Boeing currently has orders and customer options for a further 850 of the type.

The fires have been in the electrics. Boeing has aggressively innovated the electrical system for the B-787. For example, until the B-787, the inflight de-icing of the leading edge of wings and tail surfaces has been from hot air bled from an aircraft’s engines. By using purely electrical heating for the inflight de-icing subsystems on the B-787, mechanical pneumatic subsystems have been replaced by far lighter electrical-only components, while the avoidance of hot-air bleeding from the jet turbines increases fuel efficiency.

The electrical system is powered by advanced lithium-ion batteries, which deliver about six times the power of the familiar lead-acid car battery, with a smaller volume and lighter mass. Lithium-ion batteries are now common in laptops and mobile phones, some cars, trains, buses and indeed aircraft: the Airbus A380 superjumbo uses them (only) for emergency lighting. But lithium-ion batteries are challenging technology. Samsung Vaio laptops, for example, had issues with over-heating and spontaneous ignition from their lithium-ion batteries. The US Federal Aviation Authority has issued warnings about carrying lithium-ion batteries as cargo after a UPS B-747 jumbo crashed near Dubai in September 2010 with a fire in its hold from a consignment of these batteries.

The battery re-charging subsystem for the B-787 is made by Securaplane in Tucson, Arizona. In November 2006, during the design of the re-charging subsystem for the B-787, Securaplane lost an entire building due to a fire caused by an ignition of a lithium-ion battery. The batteries themselves are made by GS Yuasa in Japan. The circuitry to connect the re-charger to the battery is supplied by Thales in France. With multiple parties involved, the US and international authorities clearly have a complex task to understand the cause, or causes, of the B-787 electrical system fires. The Wall Street Journal reported on 22nd January last that there are already frictions between the various investigative teams involved. There are views reported in both the Seattle Times newspaper and separately in the Japan Times that resolution of the issue may take several months at a minimum.

“Chris, when you see a B-777 take-off you see a beautiful airplane. When I see a B-777 take-off, I see over a million parts flying in close formation”. Thus spoke a senior Boeing engineer to me during one of my regular visits to Boeing’s Everett plant in Seattle, where all the Boeing wide-body jets undergo final assembly. The Everett building is the largest under a single roof in the world: at any one time, it is usual to see seven or eight wide-body jets in various stages of assembly, on each of the B-747, B-767, B-777, and now B-787, assembly lines. At IONA we supplied Boeing, in all of its then seventeen manufacturing plants across the USA, with the networking software which tied together each of the myriad of manufacturing and assembly control systems, tracking every single part in every single subsystem of every aircraft on the production lines.

The complexity of a modern jetliner is staggering. There is naturally intense care and oversight of the design and manufacture, ensuring in principle that the failure of no single part can cause a disaster. The electrical fires in production B-787s are thus very surprising: how could Boeing have such a hugely damaging design failure ? How come these issues did not arise in the pre-production models during operations testing ? On what basis did the hitherto well-respected US regulators approve the B-787 for commercial flights to begin ?

As IONA CEO in 1999, I can recall the intense professional concern I felt when somewhere deep within our own million-plus lines of software source code, a failure temporarily caused delays in the manufacturing lines at Boeing. In addition to our own best efforts not only to test for our own software failures, we also built in defensive mechanisms so that if a partial failure did occur somewhere that our software could at best recover, or at worst fail gracefully and advise us where the bug had arisen. An actual failure in a production system deployed at such a high profile customer was a spectacular embarrassment.

Engineering systems are frequently complex, and often too large in scope for any single human being to understand every single part. Innovation requires a degree of risk, since things are done which have never been done before, thus gaining a competitive edge over other companies in the same market. The damage that can come to reputation when things go wrong can quickly unwind years of respect which has been carefully nurtured in customers. It can also rapidly empower competitors: the grounding of the B-787 fleet worldwide may well remove Boeing’s headstart over Airbus in this category of airliner, and so enable Airbus’s A-350 XWB to catch up and enter full service.

Innovation can only be done by the brave. The real test of leadership of an organisation arises only when, despite extreme care, things go wrong.


About chrisjhorn
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2 Responses to The B787 Dreamliner: memories, and innovation

  1. matjamca says:

    So it seems even more odd that Boeing are now proposing a ‘fix’ that isn’t really a fix at all?

    How can they fix something when no-one understands the reasons for the failures?

    According to sources close to the proposed fix which Boeing have submitted to the FAA – it’s more of a containment than an actual fix. So, Boeing are happy to ask the FAA to allow the 787 to fly again, despite not knowing the true root cause of the battery failures because they can now contain the hell that may be unleashed.

    This troubles and concerns me. Surely the FAA cannot give the go ahead?

  2. chrisjhorn says:

    Even if the FAA does approve at this point, its unclear whether other authorities will also do so: a large number of the deployed fleet are with the Japanese, and some also Canadian and Polish.

    And even if the authorities do in fact approve, it is unclear whether the flying public would use the aircraft before Boeing has identified the root cause. Would you fly (particularly a long distance trans-oceanic flight) before Boeing has identified the problem ?

    Personally I suspect that the FAA will not give its approval prior to a full understanding. To do otherwise would further damage the authority and reputation of the FAA.

    Thanks for the comment
    best wishes

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