Blame the Supply Chain for Boeing Dreamliner Problems?

Sometimes, you want to pull your hair out.

Government investigators in both the United States and Japan have been furiously trying to figure out what caused a fire aboard a JAL Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Early in the investigation, officials focused on the charred battery and then on the battery's auxiliary power unit (APU). The APU, manufactured by Securaplane Technologies Inc. in Tucson, Ariz., was quickly absolved of blame when investigators found no anomalies in the suspect unit. The latest thinking focuses on the battery cells themselves.

As the investigation continues, Boeing has already pointed the finger at its own supply chain, at least according to an investigative story in The Seattle Times. The newspaper reported this week:

Company engineers blame the 787's outsourced supply chain, saying that poor quality components are coming from subcontractors that have operated largely out of Boeing's view.

Anonymous engineers quoted in the story are blaming power panels as the probable source and noting that, while faults experienced in the 787 are not out of the range of those experienced with the Boeing 777, there has been an unusual number of electrical faults.

The Seattle Times story continues:

A senior Boeing engineer not directly involved with the 787 said he believes the company's early delegation of control on 787 outsourcing to multiple tiers of suppliers is now coming back to bite the jet program, though it made belated efforts to tighten up oversight of suppliers.

“The supplier management organization (at Boeing) didn't have diddly-squat in terms of engineering capability when they sourced all that work,” he said.

Boeing won't comment on the allegation other than to deny any lax supply-chain oversight.

Damning, anonymously
Two things about this story make my head spin.

First off, the most damning information in the story is attributed to a “senior Boeing engineer not directly involved with the 787.” That should speak for itself. A jealous engineer who didn't get a plum 787 job when the project started? Or perhaps an engineer with an offshoring/outsourcing axe to grind?

Second, one of the keys to the Dreamliner project was the extensive use of the supply-chain. Like any other huge manufacturing company, Boeing has extensive procurement rules and regulations and a favored suppliers lists. So I have to believe that Boeing — no fly-by-night organization — has a pretty solid supply-chain oversight system.

Of course, there could be lax oversight, but my real point here is if the problem is traced to a supplier, it's not the supply chain's problem — it's the supplier's problem and, ultimately, an engineering problem. Electronics design and manufacturing is hugely complex and open to bugs, shorts, and faults, whether it's outsourced or done by Boeing's internal engineering.

Maybe it's just me, but let's not blame a supply chain that companies trust and rely on because of a fault along the chain. Identify the source of the problem and fix it by tightening the Q/A within that company or removing the company from the chain.

Am I nuts here? What do you think?

13 comments on “Blame the Supply Chain for Boeing Dreamliner Problems?

  1. rohscompliant
    February 12, 2013

    I would say you are spot on. It is not the supply chain … is a supplier or two or three. It is just in our face because BOEING is a big company which created a cutting edge passanger plane. They used more battery backed systems to replace a lot of the electro mechanical systems used in the hydraulics……..less weight more fuel savings, longer in flight mileage. Pushing new technology always has draw backs. Thankfullly all the planes were grounded and there was no tragic loss of life. My bet is that BOEING will find the fix and the 787 will go on to be a great plane.

  2. Cryptoman
    February 12, 2013

    A company like Boeing cannot exist without a water tight supply chain. By definition, Boeing's work is all about contingency, risk management and fault avoidance, which I am sure applies to their supply chain too. Therefore, one supplier's poor work cannot be attributed to all the supply chain members and to a very successful company like Boeing. In cases like this, the best any company can do is to analyse where and why things went wrong, make the required changes to move forward stronger and with improved wisdom.

  3. mike_at_DCA
    February 12, 2013

    Agree with Cryptoman. … and Rich 🙂 …

  4. elctrnx_lyf
    February 13, 2013

    If it is a supplier then it is a supply chian problem. Supply chain shall have strong engineering knowledge to make sure all the outsourced development or supply chain will not become a prey for lower quality parts end up into the product. Glad there is no tragedy happened till now and Boeing should rethink and improve the quality check. Otherwise any small mistake will cost big money.

  5. Clairvoyant
    February 13, 2013

    I agree with Rohscompliant. All new designs will go through some amount of 'growing pains'. It is very difficult to account for any problem that may occur, no matter how well engineered a product is. We can all blame Murphy's Law.

  6. Brian Fuller
    February 13, 2013

    Almost fell out of my chair on that line, Rich. Point taken. I occasionally want to pull my hair out. Other times I just curse between gritted teeth… still other times there are no gritted teeth!


  7. Brian Fuller
    February 13, 2013

    Absolutely, although I think we all have the urge to micromanage our suppliers (in whatever form they work with us), it's humanly impossible. 

    That said, as you point out, the systems are in place to cull the herd, if you will. However for Boeing, this could be a moment that damages their business in the medium term. 

    The strategic vision was a cost-efficient, fuel-efficient aircraft that was relevant to as many routes as possible. Then, leverage the supply chain like it's never been leveraged before. Makes perfect sense. 

    Here's hoping it very isolated problem with the battery cells themselves. The latest, from our colleague Chuck Murray at DesignNews, is that the NTSB is citing a short in one the cells. They still don't have a sense for what caused the short. (

    We shall see… 


  8. t.alex
    February 14, 2013

    Somehow this problem were not discovered during testing phases. It is not just supply chain issue. They skip steps maybe. 

  9. _hm
    February 15, 2013

    Yes, I agree with Boeing Sr Engineer. Outsourcing of highly engineered product is very demanding task. Involvement of not so technical supply chain and management people, with their attitude to simplfy all problems and its solution introduces many risks to program. There are many lessons to learn. I wish Boeing enginner can soon find root couse and rectify it.

  10. bolaji ojo
    February 15, 2013

    There are enough blames to share here and the development only points to the complexity of the design chain and the supply chain. While we focus on what failed we forget the thousands of parts and systems that continue to function as expected.

    In such a highly engineered plane, a lot of things worked as expected. Nonetheless, so much is at stake that the failure of a single part or system can have catastrophic consequences.

    What this points to is the fact that the design team and the procurement team must work ever more tightly together.


  11. Paumanok Publications, Inc.
    February 15, 2013

    Remember, this was the first time that Boeing had employed the new supply chain model that compartmentalized production and moved a significant amount of quality control back to individual parts vendors.  There were some major concerns that such a model would be employed for an item that contained so many parts.  Having said that, its amazing that for the want of a 10 cent thermal fuse, the Dreamliner is sleeping.  

  12. Brian Fuller
    February 15, 2013

    Paumanok, artfully put! But good last line aside, you raise an excellent point. Aside from not indicting the supply-chain ecosystem in general, here's hoping that Boeing doesn't sting so much from this episode that it scales back the approach on future designs. 

  13. ottova
    March 8, 2013

    Ah, the diddly squat metric.  While often a source of controversy among engineering and managment teams and within the FAA, it is usually assigned a value of approximating zero or insufficient to the demands of the task.

    I also wouldn't be so quick to assign base motives such as jealousy and/or resentment towards the Boeing person who made the comment.  There were plenty of rather brilliant people at Boeing who could see, with a high degree of clarity, that an event of this type was certain, probability equal to 1, to happen, based on the management approach Boeing used with this airframe.  As a result, many of them avoided this project like the plague.

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