Electronics outsourcing weakened Boeing's control over 787 systems
July 6, 2013 8:00 AM
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
In-production Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft for ANA and other airlines sit on the tarmac at the Boeing production facilities and factory at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. Boeing 787s returned after a three-month grounding.
By Dominic Gates The Seattle Times
Ten years ago, Boeing had a unit of 1,200 engineers in Everett, Wash., designing electronic controls for all its airplanes, and a plant in Texas where another 1,200 people built the hardware.
The company created the unit in the early 1980s because all the systems on a modern jet -- including the electrical, hydraulics, engine, fuel, cabin air and flight-control systems -- are managed by electronics.
"It was a strategic move to control the electronics itself," said Dwight Schaeffer, a former senior manager at Boeing Commercial Electronics.
Yet as Boeing launched the 787 Dreamliner program in 2003, management dispersed all those Everett engineers, outsourced their work, then sold off the Texas plant as part of a move intended to cut costs.
On jets before the 787, Boeing Commercial Electronics or BCE integrated components from many different suppliers so they worked together properly. And if suppliers got in trouble, BCE stepped in and got the job done.
"Now they don't have that capability," said Jerry Packard, another former BCE manager. "That's all lost."
In contrast to Boeing's well-known move to let "global partners" design and manufacture the 787's wings, tail and fuselage, the way it handed design control to 787 systems partners, including management of subcontractors, received little attention at the time.
After this year's costly three-month grounding of the plane from January's battery problems, that approach is getting new scrutiny.
Longtime industry analyst Richard Aboulafia worries it may bring the 787 more grief in future.
"Without complete oversight of the subsystems, they might be finding systems glitches for years," Mr. Aboulafia said.
In the aftermath of a rash of 787 systems problems -- in its electrical power-distribution panels and generators as well as its battery system -- the dissolution of Boeing Commercial Electronics offers a case study in how Boeing dealt away in-house expertise and relinquished control over systems suppliers.
BCE designed and built electronic boxes and circuit cards that controlled a multitude of crucial systems on all Boeing planes before the 787.
As a manager at BCE, Mr. Schaeffer managed the budgets for about 230 employees and ran research and development, business development, project management and product support.
He said BCE's role as an integrator of different subsystems gave it a clear overview of how a jet's systems were coming together.
"No supplier would trust another," Mr. Schaeffer said. "But the suppliers would trust us not to give away their secrets."
On the 777 program, for example, Honeywell supplied a system to detect when the weight of the plane was on the landing gear; Allied Signal supplied a smoke-detection system for the cargo hold; Hamilton Standard -- which later became Hamilton Sundstrand -- supplied an electrical anti-ice system; Fenwal Controls supplied a system to detect leaks in air ducts; Walter Kidde supplied a fire-detection system.
These all fed into and were controlled by a single BCE-designed electronics box, as were other systems designed and built by BCE itself -- including the hydraulics monitoring and the passenger cabin's environmental controls.
To make it all work together, BCE controlled both the physical format of this vital communications nexus, as well as the electrical and software standards for each system.
As Dreamliners entered scheduled service in numbers last year, problems surfaced initially with the 787's electrical system.
At least four times, electrical arcing in circuit boards inside the power panels caused airline-service disruptions, including a Dec. 4 flight diversion by United Airlines. On Dec. 17, an electrical generator on a United 787 failed after a flight attendant reported a loud bang under the floor.
Then in January, problems with the battery system -- a battery fire on the ground in Boston and a smoldering battery in flight in Japan -- grounded the entire Dreamliner fleet.
Were these "teething problems" or signs of an underlying systems vulnerability?
Boeing insists that the way it outsourced 787 systems was not significantly different from what it's done in the past.
Instead of relying on multiple suppliers sending in pieces Boeing integrated, the jet-maker had its major systems partners "design, build and integrate subsystems," spokesman Larry Wilson said. "We streamlined our approach."
The 787 is the first Boeing jet with all its electronic components sourced from outside suppliers.
Mr. Schaeffer said eliminating BCE from the supply chain meant many subsystem suppliers were "out of sight, out of mind," no longer working directly with Boeing.
"Just by getting rid of us, Boeing outsourced its systems-design responsibilities more on the 787 than on other airplanes," he said.