Boeing Should Never Say Never


Boeing Should Never Say Never

Charles Murray

Charles Murray, Senior Technical Editor, Electronics & Test

Boeing Co. recently insisted that the new battery design for its 787 Dreamliner "eliminates the possibility of fire."

That may have pacified the average consumer, but it hasn’t made engineers very happy.

In comments to our post on Boeing’s announcement, readers have compared the Dreamliner to the Titanic.

They’ve called the lead engineer "cocky," accused Boeing of a "lack of thinking," and contended that its management "should be hanging their collective heads in shame."

For me, admittedly, this is tough to watch.

I met members of Boeing’s technical and management staff 17 years ago, when Design News presented Alan Mulally with its Engineer of the Year Award for his leadership in the design of the 777.

And we met again in 2007, when we named Tom Cogan of Boeing our Engineer of the Year.

Talking to them on both those occasions, and hearing how they had successfully managed such immense and complex projects, I was in awe. And I’ve remained in awe ever since.

That’s why it’s so tough now to watch Boeing follow one technical blunder with another.

To the public, maybe its recent comments don’t seem like a blunder.

After all, saying that its new lithium-ion battery design eliminates the chance of fire is the ultimate vote of confidence, isn’t it? Saying that a fire "can’t begin, develop, or be sustained" is a sign that the problem has been solved, right?

Maybe we’ll never see another lithium-ion battery fire on a Boeing jet.

But what’s angering our readers isn’t the results.

It’s the approach. Saying "never" isn’t engineering talk.

It’s public relations speak, and engineers don’t like public relations speak.

They’re trained to deal with realities, not wishful thinking.

It’s especially egregious when you consider the background of lithium-ion batteries and Boeing’s ongoing story in particular.

Lithium-ion batteries have had overheating problems and/or fires in laptop computers, in hybrid electric cars, and on board the Boeing 787.

They’re a known commodity — a battery with an energetic chemistry that has a dubious reputation, because engineers sometimes have failed to appreciate the full risk.

Before the 787 fire at Boston’s Logan International Airport in January, Boeing engineers obviously knew they were dealing with a vigorous battery chemistry.

We reported last week on an interim report from the National Transportation Safety Board, in which Boeing engineers said they had assessed the risk of a "battery venting smoke" at once in 10 million flight hours and the risk of a "battery venting fire" at once in a billion hours.

But in slightly more than 50,000 hours, the company has had one fire and one overheating incident.

Looking at that track record, many engineers are scratching their heads.

Engineers are trained to evaluate and mitigate risk.

Every day, they build cars, trucks, airplanes, elevators, rockets, medical devices, and other products that have to control a package of energy.

Sometimes that package is powerful, but engineers generally find a way to regulate it.

In almost every case, they are successful in handling gasoline, rocket fuel, electricity, and, yes, lithium-ion batteries.

But in almost no case do they smack their hands together and say, "The risk is zero."

It’s hard for most of us to imagine the external pressures that must have been brought to bear on Boeing staffers.

For the past two-and-a-half months, Boeing has been deluged with press inquiries.

Its story has been told in virtually every newspaper and radio broadcast.

Its engineers and executives have lived on precious little sleep.

And its stockholders have undoubtedly been breathing down the necks of management.

So a public discussion of engineering risk probably hasn’t come up high on the company’s priority list.

For those reasons, it’s much easier to say the risk is zero.

That’s what consumers want to believe about every product they touch, anyway.

And it’s what they usually believe when something goes wrong and they start phoning lawyers.

So the easy solution is for the company to say "zero."

No risk.

It’s impossible.

Fire can’t begin, develop, or be sustained.

Just don’t tell that to engineers.

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