How to Avoid Boeing’s Nightmare of a Dreamliner Problem

What is something that no passenger — and no airline employee who got an MBA degree and went into management — wants to hear? That something at the back of a brand new plane caught fire, which grounds the vehicle and cancels the flight. But as bad as the news is for them, it’s even worse for an airline manufacturer like Boeing that has seen one Dreamliner after another grounded by battery problems.

The Dreamliner 787 is Boeing’s latest long-range plane, using sophisticated engineering and composite materials to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency by 20 percent of the 767. It was supposed to keep Boeing in front of the European competition of Airbus. By the end of 2012, Boeing had a total of 848 orders for the plane. Things were taking off — only, they weren’t.

As the battery problems became obvious, authorities worldwide grounded the Dreamliner because of the major malfunctions. The problem technically has been lithium-ion batteries. Lithium-ion is a great technology for combining high power and low weight, which is why they have been adopted widely for use in such consumer electronics as smartphones, MP3 players, digital cameras, laptops, and tablets. They’re also found in vehicles like electric cars. However, there are dangers to these batteries. They can overheat and catch fire, particularly if being charged by an external power source that doesn’t cut the flow of power when the battery is at full power.

The condition is called a thermal runaway and temperatures can reach between 570 degrees and 750 degrees Fahrenheit. Overheating problems have occurred in consumer electronics devices. However, issues are relatively rare given the tens of millions of units in use by people under all manners of conditions.

Such hasn’t been the case with the Dreamliner as there were two fires in 50 of the craft in use. And apparently electrical problems had been an issue even before the fires. All Nippon Airways had already replaced 10 of the batteries and Japan Airlines had to replace “several” of them. The latter was the first airline to get one of the planes late in 2011.

Maybe there was a problem in design or in manufacturing. Whatever the case, there is definitely a problem with the Dreamliner and it isn’t a rare type that may require many thousands or even millions of products in use for issues to statistically appear. It seems hard to believe that engineers, manufacturing personnel, test pilots, and, yes, managers had no knowledge of what could happen. Boeing was years late in finishing the plane. It is easy to understand why executives might feel the need to push things along. But there are times that responsible management means taking the heat and putting a halt to a course of action that will ultimately be more damaging to the company.

By not identifying and dealing with what is clearly a pervasive problem means that Boeing has possibly scared many airlines from fulfilling their orders or placing new ones, handing a huge advantage to Airbus.