Boeing Dreamliner: Case Study for Design & Supply Chain

When a Boeing 787 lifted off this week on a test flight as part of its rehabilitation from battery problems, it flew in part on the winds of design and supply-chain collaboration.

The aircraft manufacturer endured one of the biggest crises in its history when two of its planes experienced problems with the lithium-ion batteries that serve as backups and auxiliary systems for the leading-edge aircraft. Its 787s have been grounded while engineers have worked to determine the cause of the battery fires and then suggest fixes.

Boeing has suggested a series of design modifications (see graphic below) to the battery packs to protect individual cells and better seal the battery itself to prevent fires. (Boeing's chief project engineer for the 787, Mike Sinnett, emphasized in a recent press conference that no fires occurred in either incident. Instead, what vented from the batteries was vaporized electrolyte.)

Boeing marshaled 500 engineers as well as partners, customers,  and suppliers to react quickly to its high-profile battery failures.

Boeing marshaled 500 engineers as well as partners, customers,
and suppliers to react quickly to its high-profile battery failures.

What have we learned so far? A month ago, some pointed fingers at Boeing's operational management (See Lessons From Boeing’s Dreamliner Supply Chain Missteps.)

Others blamed the supply chain itself for the mishaps. (See Blame the Supply Chain for Boeing Dreamliner Problems?) Boeing created a completely new design and supply chain for itself as part of its groundbreaking 787 project. OK, so maybe they bit off more than they could chew on a new aircraft design.

But you can't blame the supply chain itself. You can point fingers at certain suppliers, and clearly there was a bit of that in the early weeks after the accidents were reported. But — and this is a huge but — that ultimately wastes precious time. In this case, the partners minimized the finger pointing (at least publicly) and got laser-focused on identifying the problems and creating solutions.

Sinnett noted in the Tokyo press conference that within a week of the failures, Boeing had 500 engineers dedicated to the case — engineers who had worked on space stations, on satellites and rockets, and on other airplane programs.

They brought in suppliers, partners, and customers.

By the third week, they had assembled a team from automobile manufacturers, government organizations, and universities to understand what their testing should be and where manufacturing might have been weak.

“We all worked as one team to try to understand what had happened and make sure it wouldn't happen again,” Sinnett said.

They've spent 200,000 hours in engineering and design to understand and correct what may have happened.

Here are some of the fixes:

  • Boeing teamed with Thales, the provider of the integrated power conversion system, and battery maker GS Yuasa to develop and institute enhanced production standards and tests to reduce any variation in the production of the individual cells as well as the overall battery.
  • They added four new or revised tests to screen cell production.
  • Boeing, Thales, and GS Yuasa will lower the highest charge allowed in the battery monitoring unit and charger and raise the lower level allowed for discharge.
  • Inside the battery charger, each cell will be better insulated. An electrical insulator is being wrapped around each battery cell to electrically isolate cells from each other and from the battery case, even in the event of a failure.
  • The battery will now be enclosed in sealed stainless steel.

Decades ago, the Johnson & Johnson corporation could have vaporized if it had mishandled the Tylenol poisoning scare. Instead, it became a case study on how to do consumer crisis management correctly.

My bet is that Boeing will end up with a similar legacy for supply-chain crisis management.

7 comments on “Boeing Dreamliner: Case Study for Design & Supply Chain

  1. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 28, 2013

    This is indeed a good case study . It shows that rather than playing the blame game and finding and firing the scapegoat if the focus is put on solving the problem from its root then the results have a long term positive impact on the company's image as well as they encourage the team members to come out with solutions without hiding the problems.

    IT would have been easy for Boeing to put he blame on the project manager and sack him and temporarily save the face in the eye of the public but the problem would have remained unsolved.

  2. Brian Fuller
    March 28, 2013

    @Rich, good point. But I have to think the challenge scales. At 200,000 engineering hours dedicated to this investigation/fix, something's gotta give elsewhere. It would be the same if you had a company with 20 engineers and 10 suddenly were diverted to solving a field failure, wouldn't it?


  3. Houngbo_Hospice
    March 29, 2013

    @Rich – I don't think Boeing will take the chance to use any counterfeit product in its aircraft. I am sure that any component that enters in the planes' production lines can be traced back to its original manufacturer.

  4. Houngbo_Hospice
    March 29, 2013

    We can assume that 500 hundred engineers cannot all be wrong and the problem is already fixed. But question is whether Boeing customers will be willing to order more dreamliners.

  5. HM
    March 30, 2013

    Its very surprising that something like this happened with boeing product. But they learnt lessons spent time in analyzing the root cause and fixed design issue its great Sure it cannot be a simple case of counterfeit component.

  6. t.alex
    April 2, 2013

    This is defnitely an impressive figure to show the dedication towards solving this battery problem. If thinking on the other hand, is this figure slightly inflated for PR purpose?

  7. Brian Fuller
    April 3, 2013

    @t.alex, I don't think that would surprise any of us (inflated numbers), however this is a make or break moment for these guys… they have to get this done and get it done now. Boeing doesn't want “poorly engineered” on its resume. 

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