You’ve probably been reading about problems with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. If so, you already know federal investigators said they had ruled out excessive voltage as the cause of a battery fire on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Boston. The fire, aboard a Japan Airlines plane January 7th at Logan International Airport in Boston, occurred after the passengers had gotten off.
That wasn’t an isolated event. A battery problem on another 787 forced an All Nippon Airways jetliner to make an emergency landing in Japan. As a Seattle Times article reported, that event prompted aviation authorities around the world to ground the planes. The Federal Aviation Administration said then it would not lift the ban until Boeing could show the batteries were safe. But with investigators on a global quest to find out what went wrong, the safety board’s statement suggested there might not be a rapid resumption of 787 flights.
Nevertheless,Boeing’s battery problems may be the least of its worries. For starters, the company will need all its political clout in Washington to speed through a resolution from regulators who are already facing allegations that they fast-tracked the troubled aircraft in the first place, according to a Guardian article.
But it’s Boeing’s approach itself that now draws scrutiny. The 787 was pitched as the airline of the future because it breaks from the norm and, instead, uses new technology. So, for example, the Dreamliner is made of carbon-fiber. What’s really notable, however, is Boeing’s decision to massively increase the percentage of parts it sourced from outside contractors. The Guardian article details that the Dreamliner’s wing tips were made in Korea, the cabin lighting in Germany, cargo doors in Sweden, escape slides in New Jersey, and landing gear in France.
Using such a high number of outsourced parts also led to three years of delays. The article cites a number of problems, such as that parts didn’t fit together properly; shims used to bridge small parts weren’t attached correctly; and that many aircraft had to have their tails extensively reworked. As has been previously noted, Boeing eventually ended up buying some of those suppliers so it could bring business back in-house.
Consequently, not only were there delays, but as a Washington Post blog points out, such a high degree of outsourcing made it difficult for Boeing to spot and evaluate systemic problems. Outsourcing has always been a part of commercial aviation, the difference now is the complexity and co-dependence of the electronics operating the aircraft. Indeed, the sheer number of outsourced parts makes troubleshooting potentially more difficult, the post notes.
So, for example, a Japan Today article notes that parts came into Boeing’s assembly plants from 135 other sites and 50 suppliers. Furthermore, an IndustryWeek article points out that, writing in Forbes magazine, Steve Denning explains that Boeing had around 70 percent of the 787 built by strategic partners who were tasked with managing relations with sub-contractors. He went on to add that Boeing executives realized over time that not all its partners had the require expertise.
There certainly will be ramifications for other companies. That same IndustryWeek article explains that executives at European aircraft maker Airbus are wary that the problems leading to the grounding of the 787 Dreamliner could also delay the commercial launch of it’s own A350 airliner. Like the Dreamliner, the Airbus A350, which is to enter service in the second half of 2014, uses lots of composite materials and shifts some of the mechanics from hydraulic systems to electrical ones, which may be where Boeing has run into trouble.
But Airbus executives are also quick to point out differences between the planes. Boeing built the 787 with a fully composite fuselage to save weight, whereas the A350 wraps composite panels around a metal frame, for example, and relies less on electronic systems for flight controls.
EADS executives acknowledge the A350 will also experience problems since it too relies on new technology, but as one spokesperson says in the IndustryWeek article, “We were lucky to come after Boeing and learn from what they have come up against.” He added that Airbus will also now avoid certain suppliers.
I’m interested to hear what you think. Will new regulations be proposed as a result of potential findings? Also, what type of ripple effect will be felt through the aviation supply chain? Will all level of suppliers come under increased scrutiny?