:: February 2013 Letter ::


February 2013

Dear Fellow Recent Battery Enthusiasts,

I’m not an engineer. But good engineering is like irony: you know it when you see it. This brings up the delicate subject of the new proposed 787 battery containment system. For readers who’ve been confined to a large, internet-proof box, Boeing has proposed its solution to the 787’s vexing woes. This solution separates the batteries’ cells with extra insulation, provides a heavy box for battery containment, and adds in a better system for fumes or smoke exhaust. Other refinements include better system monitoring for problem detection. In short, the new solution does everything you could possibly want. Except, well, and this is kind of a small technical concern: it doesn’t definitively identify root causes. It simply provides a blanket solution meant to cover all possible scenarios.

Again, I’m not an engineer. I can’t judge the technical virtues of the new containment system. Some engineers I’ve spoken with think the proposal is just fine (others won’t go anywhere near the plane until the problem is resolved). But the Boeing proposal seems somewhat at odds with the political and regulatory climate in Washington right now. It’s the opposite of what we’d been hearing from the FAA and NTSB, with their zero tolerance talk of “1000% safe” and “no flames on a plane.” BB&T Capital Markets analyst Carter Leake called it “a reverse Rube Goldberg contraption that attempts to solve a very complex problem with an overly simple solution.” On February 22, the FAA responded to Boeing’s ideas with a statement saying they were continuing their investigation. They may well approve the fix. But for a traveling public prepared to avoid any plane associated with fires, talk of managing heat and smoke rather than fixing the system completely was like waving a red cape in front of an economy-class bull.

Boeing can do better than this. In fact, the company probably is doing better than this right now. The company’s engineers are likely working on an array of alternative plans, including a complete system redesign. My concern, however, is that they aren’t messaging this at all. Instead, the company insists that this containment system is their only proposed way forward.

Let’s take a moment to consider the role of the engineer, in the industry and at Boeing. Some industry analysts have engineering degrees; many don’t. Many other occupations in our industry, such as executive leadership, journalism, legal representation, etc, require an understanding of technology, but the actual practice of engineering is a very specific and often compartmentalized skill set that isn’t required for these jobs. Yet people in non-engineering occupations know they can’t do what engineers do. Similarly, a non-doctor might do a good job as the CEO of a medical firm, or as a medical industry analyst, but a person without a medical doctor degree shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that they are a doctor.

One of the key skills in managing an aerospace company is managing the interface between engineering (i.e., the folks tasked with designing and creating new technologies and products) and the outside world (market challenges, economic and financial issues, regulatory and political concerns, public perception, and lots else). Engineers propose, devise, and develop technologies and solutions. Management works with engineering to select and refine these solutions, filtering them through an understanding of all the non-engineering issues.

Looking at the containment system proposal, Boeing management is saying that the only way forward is the one that’s the most financially expedient, the one that allows them to keep building aircraft at an increasing rate, and the one that validates all the original battery system design decisions. They’re offering a quick fix, rather than proposing solutions that offer a permanent long-term (if expensive and time-consuming) answer to the 787’s woes. Again, the fix may well do the job. But for Boeing to message that this fix is the company’s sole proposal speaks to a culture that’s more in tune with financial needs than engineering requirements, a problem that set the stage for the 787’s problems in the first place. (My letter last month also discusses these themes). It also speaks to management difficulties with harmonizing regulatory and market needs with engineering requirements.

One clue to this troubled engineering/management interface can be found in Monica Langley’s February 20th Wall Street Journal profile of Boeing CEO Jim McNerney. The profile portrays him as a behind-the-scenes, hands-on kind of executive, the kind of guy who, in Star Trek, can be found doing a Level Three Diagnostic on the Forward Sensor Array. He’s depicted with 787 engineering blueprints on his desk, poring over technical details and making design suggestions. Here’s one telling passage:

The next morning, he visited the nearby Everett production facility, where two Dreamliner war rooms, called “Root Cause/Corrective Action” and “Return to Flight,” had been set up. In one room there was a “fault tree” of possible triggers for the battery failures. Of the 88 initial branches, fewer than six branches were circled in red, orange or yellow as likely causes. He studied a graph showing temperature compared with voltage. “Why aren't you more focused here?” he asked.

Now, read that passage again, but with this simple reality in mind: By vocation and by education, McNerney is not an engineer. In other words, the way he’s portrayed resembles the sort of fellow who tells his attorney how to write a will, or his doctor how to take out a spleen.

I’ll defend McNerney against charges of boorishness, at least. These anecdotes are likely just corporate theater, meant to demonstrate an elusive CEO’s purported engineering acumen (in general, Langley’s story is well balanced). McNerney has been disengaged from the program thus far, as illustrated most recently in the company’s fourth quarter conference call, where the 787’s problems were treated as a secondary concern. Analysts requesting clarity about the company’s response basically had their questions deflected, partly with the claim that the company couldn’t say anything about its response while the FAA investigation was underway.

But the troubling aspect of the McNerney anecdote is what it says about Boeing leadership’s view of complex engineering issues as something anyone can quickly grasp. It also speaks to a disconnect between engineering decisions and all the other considerations needed when developing (and fixing) a new jet. Having a non-engineer as CEO of Boeing is not a problem. Having non-engineers as both CEO of Boeing and head of the commercial jetliner division is somewhat more dangerous. As seen during the 787’s development phase, that situation may mean obstacles for engineers hoping to communicate concerns to management.

The FAA will rule on Boeing’s new battery containment proposal in a few weeks. There’s a chance they’ll say yes, in which case the 787 will still need a lot of testing and re-certification (and the public perception issue may persist). There’s also a chance they’ll tell Boeing to go feed its proposal to a goat. That’s when Boeing’s problems will restart with a vengeance. Now would be a good time for the company to hedge its bets and talk about alternative plans.

The 787 remains a tremendously promising aircraft, and Boeing has some of the best engineers in the world. But to fix its problems in a way that satisfies the regulatory agencies and the broader public, and to make sure that future programs don’t have the 787’s problems, Boeing needs to rethink the relationship between engineering and management, and where engineers fit into the leadership team.

Teal Aircraft updates this month include the 787 itself, the Fighter and Special Mission overviews, the F-16, B-1, and A350XWB. Have a great month.

Yours, ‘Til A Deus Ex Machina Arrives,
Richard Aboulafia

© Richard Aboulafia 1997-2006, All rights reserved.
  ~  Last updated on January 08, 2006