During four months of this year, the entire Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet was grounded due to a series of lithium-ion batteries overheating. This was but one of a number of problems confronting the revolutionary aircraft. During the course of this blog, we will briefly review the causes of these problems and their remedies.
To its credit, the 787 was not the first aircraft to have a troubled development history. For example, the Boeing B-29 Superfortress experienced a number of problems with engines overheating, as well as the pressurized cabin system. The General Dynamics F-111 fighter-bomber also had a number of problems relating to its variable geometry wing technology. In the case of the B-29, an entirely new infrastructure was required to support the development and subsequent production of the aircraft. Whenever a new technology or concept is applied to a plane, there is always a risk factor associated with its development.
The Dreamliner’s problems may have stemmed from several sources. The 787 has suffered from a number of electrical problems besides its batteries. Engineers have noted defects in the electrical control panels. These panels control power to all major components of the plane and have experienced several failures in recent months – the latest, a fire in the emergency locator system on a grounded aircraft in London. Engineers familiar with the 787 program believe much of the problem stems from the global outsourcing of production. Boeing outsourced much of the Dreamliner production in order to reduce both time and development costs of the plane. In doing so, they were able to cut development costs by approximately a third. However, by outsourcing, Boeing was not able to maintain as rigid a quality control, as with domestically built aircraft. In several of the electrical panel failures, the flaw has been traced to poor quality foreign parts.
Technology also plays a role in the 787′s problems. With the plane constructed of 65% carbon-fiber materials, changes to the plane’s operating systems were necessary to accommodate the lightweight materials. This resulted in the use of electrical components to perform the same functions as mechanical and hydraulic systems in other aircraft. With more stress on the electrical system, the higher probability of failure. The 787 also uses new engines produced by Rolls-Royce and General Electric. The GENX-1b is supposed deliver both increased performance, as well as being more lightweight and environmentally friendly than the GECF6-80 used on the Boeing 767. However, fires on the GENX-1b have resulted in at least three groundings this summer.
For all of it’s problems, Boeing is fighting back. All 787s are equipped with onboard monitors, which provide real time performance data on all major components of the aircraft. Such monitors alert the aircraft crew and service personnel to a problem before it results in a grounding. Boeing now conducts ten pre-flights before delivering a Dreamliner to a customer, in contrast to only two with other aircraft. Boeing is also increasing inspections on existing Dreamliners, as well as those in production to address problems before the aircraft enter service. Statistically, the 787 is close to the reliability of the popular 737 and 777 models at the same stage of development. Boeing is still producing Dreamliners at a rate of seven per month and expects to increase the number to ten per month by the end of the year. While the 787 has had its share of problems, it remains the first aircraft of its kind to enter service.