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.)
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.