air safety

Jan 28, 2013

Boeing: Was it dreaming when it botched 787 batteries?

For the US FAA to have accepted Boeing assertions that battery fires of the type now seen in the 787s were impossible tells us that the American regulator was variously, wrong, incompetent, compromised or seriously derelict in performing its obligations.

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

The proposition that leaps off the pages when reading detailed reports into the 787 battery crisis is that Boeing’s management was so totally infatuated with the Dreamliner fairy tales it was selling that it over rode basic engineering commonsense and prudence.

This morning the article that supports the idea that the cause was inferior management appears in Forbes, which is all the more damning considering the powerful readership attached to what is a conservative, business oriented publication.

It is an interview with Donald R. Sadoway who is the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry at MIT. He queries the judgement of Boeing in its application of lithium ion batteries, pointing out what he sees as a very obvious design flaw, and suggests that the result could be that the Dreamliners are grounded until some time in 2014.

Which will be a calamity for Boeing and its customer airliners, and raises the dreadful question that with such ‘genius’ at work at the top of Boeing, what else has been stuffed up in this jet?

This is a key extract from the full article, which is freely available here.

When Sadoway got a look at the lithium-ion battery used in the 787, he was surprised by “the seeming absence of a cooling apparatus.” As he explained, ”In a large format battery, heat can be generated faster than it dissipates to the surroundings with the result that the temperature of the battery can rise to dangerously high levels which leads to bloating and ultimately fire.”

The lithium-ion battery in a cell phone, for example, is safer because the battery is so close to the outside of the phone that heat does not build up and cause a problem.

In stark contrast, the 787′s lithium-ion battery is actually eight notebook sized batteries all packed next to each other in a closed box. This means that only the batteries on the ends have any hope of venting the heat they generate. The other six batteries  just heat each other up since they can’t release their heat outside the box.

We already know that Boeing’s underpinning design principle with the lithium ion batteries was that it didn’t need to build in certain fire control or mitigation measures because the fires and over heating seen in the JAL and ANA 787s were impossible.

For the US FAA to have accepted that view by Boeing in terms of certifying this airline as safe tells us that the American regulator was variously wrong, incompetent, compromised or seriously derelict in performing its obligations.

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14 thoughts on “Boeing: Was it dreaming when it botched 787 batteries?

  1. Mark Skinner

    I have a theory about management which links a theme common in your columns, so please take it with a grain, or truck load, of salt.

    In the nineteen eighties, there arose the idea that what was required for making profitable companies, was a cadre of good managers who need not know the business, and that a set of business specific skills was not required – those could be outsourced (to save money and trouble).

    As a result major companies got in people without the business specific skills, and they got to work downsizing, outsourcing, hierarchy flattening, KPI making, human resourcing, corporate communicating, legal minefielding etc etc etc. While those who in previous generations would have succeeded to management were excluded as ‘being of the old school’, ‘not team players’ etc etc. got to keep the companies going – often despite the actions of the managers.

    Now, of course, those lower level managers are retiring en bloc and many organisations are left with plenty of managers, and plenty of outsourced suppliers, but nobody within the organisation who can be the ornery old informed purchasers. That is, the ones that can look at such a battery, sniff, and say ‘no way’ – even if they are then cast as being over conservative fuddy duddies are no longer there to bring some reality to bear on management decisions that have lost touch with said reality.

    This theory accounts for the situation not only of Qantas, but perhaps also of Rio Tinto. (How’s those $2 per day African mine workers going Mr Albanese)? It might also account for some of the nonsense coming out of our newspapers as editorial staff is dumped, ensuring the abysmal quality of some stories coming out (as you have noted in another article).

    The alarming thing is that this is a scenario that has happened across Australian government and industry. We used to have a strong technical (or business specific) element to most of our industry and commerce, where each organisation would have its own expertise and ability fo filter out sales nonsense and fads. With the notion that such business expertise was not necessary in management, we have inevitably got to a point where organisations are now no longer competent purchasers of their key business inputs.

    To get back to that point may well be too late, because some of that expertise takes ten to fifteen years to build up…and even then only if you have someone with that experience to pass it on.

    Many Australian companies will be living in interesting times for the next ten years at least.

  2. LongTimeObserver

    An indictment of the Blakey-era FAA “Customer Service Initiative” in play during 787 design, development, manufacture and certification.

  3. Geoff

    Mark – my views entirely backed up by something called the Dunning-Kruger effect:
    “When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

    Our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence!

  4. LongTimeObserver

    “You don’t know what you don’t know.”

  5. comet

    Boeing was living in 787 dreamland.

    If the 787 project is delayed a further 12-18 months, that’ll Boeing plenty of time to test the other radical features of the aircraft, such as the 787’s composite plastic airframe which has properties that are not yet fully understood. It will also give the airlines plenty of time to reconsider their orders.

    If I were Airbus, I’d set up an extra manufacturing plant for the A330. I think it might be very popular.

  6. Grant

    Mark – I have to agree with you. Ive seen the same thing in my industry so much over the past decade or two it’s not funny. We’ve seen some good Australian Companies or even Aussie operations of Foreign companies taken over by companies with no experience in the industry or whose senior management actually have no experience with the actual sale-able product of the firm and one can only be left shaking their head in wonder at the path taken. It would be ok ok if the company concerned flourished but they don’t…..IMHO you can’t have a board composed entirely of professional directors, accountants, lawyers and marketing people. They have a role to play for sure but it’s essential to have a good number of people with an actual up understanding of the company’s product from a production and techichal standpoint.

  7. COTOS

    its almost a triple burden, these incompetent managers are also tasked with the performance reviews of their staff and they get that wrong, so there is a whole generation of the wrong people in the wrong job, and the wrong people out of a job.

  8. Cricket Chirp

    I’ve been very impressed with the reporting on this blog. I’d really like your take on the Op-Ed by Gordon Bethune that runs tomorrow in one of the USA’s largest newspapers–USA Today. It’s titled Dreamliner grounding ‘absurd’ and it’s a counter point to the main Op-Ed that supports the grounding. In it Bethune argues that, “The jump earlier this month to ground the 787 Dreamliner, a thoroughly vetted airplane with 1.3 million safe hours of operation, is absurd. The people making this call are career politicians and bureaucrats with no — zero — expertise in aviation.” He goes on to claim that the fires were safely contained as designed. How true are his statements and to what extent, as far as you can tell, is Mr. Bethune acting as a proxy for Boeing’s management?

  9. Ben Sandilands

    Some of my contacts in the US have already touched on this.

    I think their point of agreement, that Bethune is accusing the FAA of being driven by political or career focused bureaucrats in ordering the grounding, is painfully ironic given the concerns that similarly motivated bureaucrats gave Boeing what it wanted to help get this complex aircraft certified.

    There is some lingering doubt in some of those I’ve been in touch with as to whether it was really necessary to ground.

    In my opinion from risk and legal charter perspectives, the FAA had no option but to ground.

    I think the claim that has already been made in some US circles, that Bethune is being used to articulate what Boeing cannot itself say is plausible, but unprovable.

  10. Achmad Osman

    I think that too much focus is being placed on Boeing for the battery debacle. One of the tenets of the B787 design was a change in plan for Boeing where their allowed their Tier 1 suppliers to do more of the design and be responsible for quality control. Thales is the Tier 1 supplier for the power system, and they in turn used many different smaller suppliers to source the batteries. The Japanese company that ultimately supplied the batteries also had a hand in some of the design decisions. Criticism should be placed with the whole chain, including Thales for the li-ion battery debacle. Everyone has become experts after the fact.

    The bets that are on now is, will the A350 fly before the re-launched B787?

  11. 777 Driver

    “from risk and legal charter perspectives” if the 787 is indeed grounded because of FAA paranoia and as a result of the say so of non technical ‘experts’, it’s not just the 787 and Boeing that is in trouble but the whole aviation industry.
    If the specialists have failed so spectacularly throughout the history of aviation what hope have management with business credentials but no other expertise?

  12. James Brown

    The whole discussion seems to be seriously short of technical information. Donald R. Sadoway’s contribution identifies one issue, cooling. If this has been ignored it represents total incompetence. There are other issues.

    The first is that batteries are a collection of cells. Is it a cell failure which evolved inevitably into a battery failure? The Dreamliner batteries include eight cells each of 3.7 volt connected to produce a nominal 28 Volt battery. Each individual cell of a lithium battery must be protected against over-discharge, which causes rapid loss of capacity, and overcharge which can cause a cell to overheat and catch on fire.

    Management of lithium cells and batteries is well established technology, it is included even in low cost consumer lithium battery drills. The possibility of overcharge was therefore unlikely as redundant systems protect against this. Over-temperature alarms were correctly displayed.

    The key issue is manufacturing defects, these can cause cell shorts which will cause rapid overheating and venting of flammable electrolyte. Once ignited there is no method of suppressing such a fire, it will burn even in a vacuum.

    All of these issues were recognised in the FAA additional safety requirements.

    Protection against cell failures is the great unknown. The FAA required smoke from such an event not to enter cabin or crew areas. This requirement seems to have also been satisfied, but the escape of gas (conducting plasma?) into the electronics bay poses serious risks.

    The photos shown two areas for concern. The main control electronics in the same compartment as the cells, it was hence disabled and destroyed very soon after the original event so any internal data was lost as well as significant reduction in system redundancy. The internal arcs, combustion and pressure caused the battery enclosure to burn through and expand close to rupture.

    With hindsight the following improvements could be considered:

    Providing an additional secondary enclosure with arc resistant lining, sufficient volume to attenuate overpressure and with a diaphragm to rupture and vent out of the aircraft.

    Dividing the primary battery enclosure to protect the electronics from damage and protect data for post event analysis.

    There appears to be adequate space for such a design change. There is no guarantee that catastrophic cell failures will not occur in Lithium batteries. The issue is what failure rate is acceptable and can such failures be contained so that there is a negligible risk of consequent damage. The present design seems to have failed these criteria.

  13. johnb78

    I think that too much focus is being placed on Boeing for the battery debacle

    Because it’s entirely their fault. If you pay me to asphalt your driveway, and I subcontract the job to an incompetent buffoon who stuffs it up, then *I* have failed to do the job for you. If I try to blame my subcontractor then you can rightly tell me to shove off and sort it out.

  14. Roland Delhomme

    The 787 battery issues are at best, self inflicted and inexplicably so.
    I’ve spoken with engineers and technical staff from inside the program; Boeing and Securaplane employees, a test pilot with 787 flight experience, and many others from NASA to the US Department of Defense (DoD) contracting sphere on this matter, as well as a number of noted experts on lithium technology. The dismay is universal.
    Consider the following:
    When you have a stack of 8 cells, ineffectively cooled, heat management becomes an exponentially greater imperative due to scaling issues. Heat load and heating rate is not well modeled or understood in this particular situation, and more thorough testing would have borne out that an active cooling loop along with passive, inherent design features would have greatly mitigated the effects of heat within the pack. Some have suggested a fan based solution, but across the wide range of temperature and altitudes involved, air does not support sufficient heat transport to effectively carry the duty of removing heat from the battery’s internal ‘neighborhoods’.
    A self-powered thermoelectric cooling loop would offer standalone cooling for the battery. Air cooling via cooling fins cannot guarantee desired thermal balance across the stack; thermal asymmetries lead to physical deformation, and chemical, electrical phenomena which only exacerbate the problems.
    Imagine the inner life of the pack, with its eight cells; electrons check in, check out, and heat builds, increasing resistance. Energy likes to take the path of least resistance, however, so the moment by moment heat picture is constantly changing. In fact, a paper from Purdue university reflects that IR sensing hardware struggle to accurately resolve the more nuanced characteristics of heating within a battery; you may draw analogies to the flickering of a flame and other processes. There are patterns in the noise.
    Battery management systems cannot operate with sufficient agility to head off an undesirable trend if they are cueing on ill-resolved data or poorly modeled, poorly understood phenomena.
    Thermography, other techniques all offer insights into the above, but a trip to the kitchen puts it all into perspective next time you defrost something in the microwave.

    Cessna Aircraft, for their part, are reporting good results with an armored containment for lithium ion batteries which pays respect to the sometimes cranky nature of high powered packs. It begs the question why this wasn’t already a priority at Boeing in the first place, since the long history of 787 battery problems was old news long before the airplane gained certification under relaxed criteria. The relaxation of those criteria by US, Japanese civil aviation authorities moved the line on safety, and has exposed another area that will dog both sides: The following doc from the World Trade Organization deserves a little review…

    James Stewart’s New York Times article covers the WTO issue quite well-and it’s not the first time this has surfaced over the 787.

    The urge to meet delivery schedules and support optimistic forecasts with results that please the stockholders has contaminated aviation safety more than once.
    The 787 crisis is par for the course; as stated above, it’s all self-inflicted; only sound leadership and a robust ethics model can navigate an organization away from these pitfalls once common sense flies out the window.

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