Planet Gore

Is ‘Green’ Tech Responsible for Boeing’s 787 Problems?

Boeing’s new aircraft — the 787 — was grounded last week by the FAA while investigators try to figure out what’s causing the plane’s “green” lithium ion batteries to catch fire in flight. But why put batteries with a history of catching fire on an airplane in the first place? The answer is to cut fuel costs:

Lithium ion batteries let Boeing swap out heavy hydraulic systems in the airframe for lightweight electronics and electric motors to operate systems such as wing de-icers. That’s a key reason the Dreamliner burns 20 percent less fuel than other wide-body aircraft.

Investigators, however, still don’t know what’s causing the battery problems:

Japanese transportation officials appear to be focusing their investigation more directly on GS Yuasa, which is based in Japan. U.S. investigators appear to be focusing on the entire electrical system and how it interacts with the batteries. The FAA was concerned a few years back about the use of lithium-ion batteries, which are prone to overheating.

Hopefully for Boeing, it’s just a batch of bad batteries. But it might be worse. Peter Cohan writes in Forbes that the entire design of the aircraft could be flawed:

Sure the self-immolating batteries are getting plenty of attention at the moment. For example, according to the Wall Street JournalJapan‘s transport ministry said Monday that it inspected the headquarters of GS Yuasa Corp. in Kyoto — the maker of the batteries that burned up. Needless to say, before the battery problems go away, the cause of the fires must be identified and fixed.

But the other 90% of the 787′s problems may well be below the surface. As I wrote in You Can’t Order Change, there is a host of other troubling problems that spring from the original conception of the 787.

In the past, Boeing has outsourced manufacturing but maintained tight control over design. In that way, Boeing was able to make sure that the pieces that other companies made would fit together well because Boeing engineers understood what each part would do and how they would interact when the plane was flying.

But with the 787, Boeing departed from this approach. Instead — to save money and supposedly to boost quality and speed time to market — Boeing outsourced 60% of the design and manufacture to suppliers. This shifted the investment on to the suppliers who would only get paid once airlines started paying for the 787s.

But it also meant that each supplier of, say, the wings or the batteries that supplied power to the engines or auxiliary systems, would use their own approach to both the design and the manufacture.

For its part, Boeing assumed that its suppliers would share its commitment to quality and meeting ambitious delivery deadlines. But this did not happen and the 787 missed at least seven deadlines and went way over budget.

Furthermore, the 787 is made of carbon fiber material, rather than aluminum. This means that it should be lighter and able to maintain higher cabin humidity which improves air quality for passengers.

Using carbon fiber also means that Boeing has no previous experience with how the material behaves in flight. So it is hard to build software that will predict how, for example, the wing will maintain its hold on the fuselage during flight.

Moreover, I received reports from a Boeing insider back in 2009 on problems with the 787′s electrical and environmental control systems. The electrical system — that includes GS Yuasa’s lithium-ion battery – is manufactured by French company Thales SA, according to Reuters.

Cohan’s whole piece here.


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