Heart of Empire — July 17, 2013, 12:12 pm

Boeing’s Plastic Planes

How Boeing’s adoption of defense-contracting practices led to the flawed Dreamliner 787

Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 model. ©© Yulin Lu/Flickr

Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 model. ©© Yulin Lu/Flickr

The Boeing Corporation’s strategy of saying as little as possible about the spontaneous combustion of one of its “Dreamliner” 787s while the plane was parked at Heathrow Airport on July 12 appears to have had the desired effect on the company’s stock price, which is recovering nicely from an initial post-fire plunge. The incident evoked nasty memories of last January’s overheating Dreamliner batteries, one of which caught fire, leading the entire fleet to be grounded worldwide for four months. And these were only the most serious of the problems that have surfaced since the long-range $206 million jetliner entered service in 2011.

Boeing’s management would clearly like for the Heathrow incident to fade quickly from the news, and for no one to start asking serious questions about the fundamental design concepts built into this revolutionary airliner, or about who thought them up and why. The company may get what it wants, which would be a pity, because this airplane and its faults have much to tell us about the corrupting influence of the military-industrial complex on a once-great company, and on American manufacturing in general.

To understand why Dreamliners catch fire, we must look all the way back to the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, when major defense contractors were facing the prospect of declining defense budgets and consequent diminishing profits. In response, William Perry, newly installed as Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Clinton Administration, presided over a series of mergers between the big firms, which produced an industry dominated by five giant “primes.” Perry offered handsome subsidies to the firms as encouragement to merge, promoting the initiative as beneficial to the taxpayer because it would cut down on wasteful overhead. Needless to say there were no such savings for taxpayers, and the resultant corporate oligopoly inevitably led to increased weapons costs.

One of the mergers united Boeing, the world’s pre-eminent commercial-airliner manufacturer, with McDonnell Douglas, a pure defense company. Boeing was of course also a defense contractor, but top management had traditionally kept the civil and defense divisions separate for fear that the defense team might infect the civilians with their culture of cost overruns, schedule slippage, and risky or unfeasible technical initiatives. These habits were all very well when the taxpayer was footing the bill for cost-plus contracts that might or might not result in a useful product, but they could obviously have proved disastrous when it came to competing with the company’s own money in a free-enterprise market.

Following the merger, however, McDonnell Douglas alumnae — most importantly CEO Henry Stonecipher — emerged in command of the combined company. Among the practices that arrived with Stonecipher and his colleagues from St. Louis was extensive outsourcing. The defense industry loves to outsource the manufacture of minor and major components to outside companies, because such dispersal buys it support in Congress — a practice known as “political engineering.” Parts for the Lockheed Martin F-35, for example, are supplied from across forty-five states, thereby cementing the fealty of ninety U.S. senators to a disastrous (as in years late, vastly over budget, and technically deficient) project. Of course outsourcing drives up costs in a variety of ways, for example by requiring the transportation of components to the ultimate manufacturer for final assembly. It also ensures delays, quality-control problems, and serious safety consequences, given the complexity of assembling parts produced under different management hundreds or thousands of miles apart. As Boeing’s pre-merger management might have predicted, the practice has had serious consequences for the company’s commercial enterprise.

The new team at Boeing also had an additional incentive to outsource: an accounting yardstick beloved of Wall Street analysts, called Return On Net Assets, or RONA. By having subcontractors put up a major portion of the capital required to develop the 787, Boeing could invest less — and when a company reduces the amount of capital it invests, it increases the percentage of return on its investment. Wall Street approved, Boeing’s stock price rose, and the value of its executives’ stock options rose along with it. Thus it was that the first major Boeing airliner initiative under the merged regime, the 787 Dreamliner, was outsourced to an unprecedented degree, with foreseeable effects on schedule (the plane entered service three years late) and cost (it exceeded an initial development estimate of $5 billion by at least $12 billion — an impressive overrun, even by defense standards).

Boeing 787 hull, constructed with composite materials. ©© Martin Eckert/Flickr

Boeing 787 hull, constructed with composite materials. ©© Martin Eckert/Flickr

Having adopted one salient feature of defense manufacturing for the 787, the merged company management lunged for another: risky technological initiatives. A primary Dreamliner selling point is its 20 percent savings on fuel compared with the plane it replaces, the 767. Since today’s jet engines burn fuel at more or less the same rate, efficiency depends on reducing the weight of the plane, and “composite materials” (i.e., plastic) are an increasingly popular means to this end. Even though plastic has yet to achieve the same predictability and reliability as metal, the Dreamliner team opted to make greater use of plastic than ever before in an airliner, even employing it for the load-bearing joint that connects the wings to the fuselage, which bears more stress than any other part of the plane. Sure enough, in final static tests, the wing failed and had to be stiffened, at great cost. Boeing’s risky choice prompted one aerospace structural engineer to remark, “Friends don’t let friends fly in plastic airplanes.”

Boeing’s other major weight-reduction initiative was to make the 787 an “all-electric” airplane, which meant that rather than having hydraulic motors drive control surfaces on the wings and tail, along with other components, they would be controlled by large generators backed up by powerful batteries — the lighter the better. Lithium-ion batteries are indeed extremely powerful for their weight, but they are also extremely dangerous, as lithium is notorious for burning with an intense, unquenchable heat. Model-airplane enthusiasts have learned the wisdom of keeping their lithium batteries in an asbestos box when recharging them; too many have seen homes and garages go up in smoke. Nevertheless, that was the route Boeing took. The overheating batteries that prompted the global grounding back in January were a harsh reminder of the risk this choice entailed.

Boeing also made the copper wire that distributes power around a plane, another major contributor to overall weight, as thin as possible. The thinner the wire, however, the higher the voltage at which current must flow along it. As a result, the 787 is laced with miles of ultrathin copper wire, bearing current that runs at 230 volts AC and 270 volts DC, which would require only a scratch in the insulation to spark a fire (a likely cause of the Heathrow blaze). A fire is especially bad news in a plastic plane, since not only do the flames cause far more damage (the design-temperature limits of composite materials are half those of aluminum), but the fumes are highly toxic to passengers.

Thus far, Boeing has been fortunate that the infection of its healthy free-enterprise firm with the deleterious customs of the defense industry has not cost any lives. But the auguries are not good.

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writes on national affairs for Harper’s Magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @andrewmcockburn.

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  • http://newsdex.net/taylor/ Chuck Taylor

    McDonnell Douglas was not “a pure defense company.”

    • Andrew Cockburn

      Douglas Aircraft put out many fine airplanes until it succumbed to the same malaise now infecting Boeing, which accelerated after its 1967 merger with MacDonell, a pure defense company. Dr L.J.Hart-Smith, the Boeing structural engineer who warned of the perils of RONA in a 2001 paper (ignored by management) pointed out that the merged company’s thirst for outsourcing led to the failure of the MD-95 and proposed MD-12 programs, which effectively killed off what was left of Douglas commercial-airplane business in California

  • Z54

    The DC-3, DC-6, DC-8, DC-9 & the DC-10 come to mind.

    • http://newsdex.net/taylor/ Chuck Taylor

      At the time of the Boeing merger, the MD-80, MD-90 and MD-11 were in production and the MD-95 was in development. The latter became the Boeing 717.

      Moreover, both companies were very involved in commercial space.

      Simplistic narratives like this drive me crazy. The “likely cause of the Heathrow blaze,” we now know, was not the 787′s wiring but the emergency locator beacon built by Honeywell.

      There are a lot of dots here that shouldn’t be connected.

      • Andrew Cockburn

        Actually, we certainly do not “now know” what caused the Heathrow fire. The inactive non-rechargeable Honeywell battery (a traditional system with an unblemished safety record) was almost certainly not the cause, most likely cited as such by Boeing in hopes of deflecting attention from its own risky design initiatives.

      • jonnm

        The MD 80, 90, 95 were DC 9s designed in the 1960s with lengthening and some changes in design. By far most of the drawings came from the 60s. The 90 for instance was essentially an 80 with reinforced empennage for hi bypass engines. The MD 11 was the DC 10. The only really new commercial aircraft I saw designed at MD was the MD 12 which was never built. I was a manufacturing project manager for the 90 and worked on the manufacturing plan for the 12 wings so I know what I’m talking about. There were small changes like limited use of lithium aluminum and composite tail cone. Most of the changes for both companies MD and Boeing were in engine design and avionics which they did not produce. The way this article is written you would have to assume that pre 60 design and materials should be used forever. The 737 and 747 are similarly old aircraft. Boeing was not such a giant of commercial a/c manufacturing since it lived off these two designs for years. The 747 design having essentially been paid for by a previous government military program and had no competition for many years. The 737 succeeded using a simpler less structurally strong design than its main competitor the DC9. Bombardier uses a system of distributed responsibility and financing and has introduced a number of new a/c such as the global Express. Their new C series is similar to the 787 in the use of composites and will compete with the smaller 737s so this will give a better idea on what is the future of A/C materials use.

  • Alex Vacca

    Not only was McDonnell not a pure defense company, but Stonecipher wasnt a real McDonnell guy. He was a GE/Jack Welch schooled bsuinessman whose expertise was cutting costs and selling companies (Sundstrand). Outsourcing and aggressive supply chain management was all the rage in the commercial world (Inaki Lopez at GM) at the time. Cockburn has the right narrative but the wrong villain. It was a commercial mindset, them in vogue, to goose returns by cutting investment while retaining the same share of profits. And it wrecked Mcdonnells business and led to their sale before wreaking havoc at Boeing.

    • Andrew Cockburn

      A slight misreading of history. McDonnell was so too a pure defense company, having wrecked Douglas’ commercial airliner business (see answer below.) Boeing people regarded the merger as a McDonnell takeover and were extremely bitter about it, predicting accurately what would happen.

      • Alex Vacca

        Boeing was concerned about the McDonnell influence, but their concern came from the commercial side of McDonnell. In an internal boeing study the engineers warned about this precise problem stemming from insufficient investment, overreliance on RONA, and poor engineering management- citing specifically McDonnells milking of the commercial aircraft business. That study has beenpublicly posted here:
        http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/ABPub/2011/02/04/2014130646.pdf
        The debate turns on whether RONA and this approach thin integration and supply chain management originated with defense contracting or commercial contracting. Tracing the career of the key executive, Harry Stonecipher (CEO of McDonnell) we see he was a commercial guy, from GE, who came to McDonnell charged to boost returns as he had at Sundstrand, and industrial conglomerate he ran and thensold to United Technologies. Stonecipher and Mike Sears (who became boeing cFO before going to jail as part of the Druyun scandal) bragged about this strategy openly, and ran up McDonnell stock before selling to Boeing.
        After Boeing struggled with 777 launch and then “Sonic Cruiser”, investors wanted hard nosed finance- not aerospace adventurism- in Boeing to ensure that the company maximised the value of the merger. Sears was ascendent as CFO, and Stonecipher played a major role until his own resignation over scandal.
        The “chain of custody” for this bad idea is from Jack Welch’s GE to Boeing, with Stonecipher as the carrier and McDonnell and Sundstrand as the intermediaries,

    • Kirk Holden

      Battling causal narratives are battling.

  • Jerry Greening

    RONA is also a non-GAAP standard measure. Wall Street may have been using it as a yardstick prior to Sarbanes-Oxley but I certainly don’t think that’s the case today, it too easy to manipulate. Investors relying on it are asking to lose their investment.

  • David_Evans

    (the design-temperature limits of composite materials are half those of aluminum),

    That’s a meaningless statement. I don’t know the figures, but if one were 100C (=212F) and the other were 200C (=392F) then the statement would appear true in degrees C but false in degrees F (212 is more than half of 392).

    • Andrew Cockburn

      Units of measure do count. My temperature comparison of composites versus aluminum was based on degrees Centigrade. The specifics are that structural design limits of carbon composites are typically 150 to 200 degrees C; aluminum design limits are 300 to 400 degrees C, depending on alloy. If these limits are exceeded in a fire, structural integrity of the airplane is compromised, particularly under repeated loads. The ignition temperature comparison shows that fire is an even more serious composite safety problem than heat. Ignition temperature for typical carbon composites is 500 degrees C; for solid (not powdered) aluminum, 2000 degrees C is needed. So it’s important not to let the units of measure question swamp the far larger safety question of how vulnerable composites are to aircraft malfunctions involving heat and fire, far more so than aluminum.

      Since today’s engines are more or less equal in fuel efficiency, including those used on the 787′s direct competitor, the Airbus 350, Boeing is marketing the unique savings imparted by the all composite and other weight reduction features of the 787. However Boeing appears to be abandoning this approach in the emerging design of the 777 8/9, with no all-composite fuselage — a telling shift away from a dead-end technology.

  • Max Grotius

    Oh, come on. Phrases like “plastic has yet to achieve the same predictability and reliability as metal” are simply misleading:

    - carbon fibre-reinforced epoxy composites have about as much to do with conventional “plastic” as, well, this piece has to do with serious technical journalism. Not that one would know it from the article, but – for instance – the materials used for main structural members have a tensile strength around three times that of aluminium;

    - composite materials do pose different, and difficult, problems of quality control and onward monitoring and maintenance; but they’ve been in use for wing components and other parts for about a decade; and

    -the reason (see the author’s comment below) why the 777-8X/9X doesn’t have a composite fuselage is because (i) 777s were developed in the early 90s and (ii) the 8X/9X, though a serious advance, isn’t a whole new plane.

  • Eric Bruun

    I still think your article was misleading about McDonnell Douglas by
    saying it was a pure defense company. The merger of Douglas with the
    real pure defense company, McDonnell in 1967 was decades before the
    merger with Boeing. At the time of the merger McDonnell Douglas was a
    competitor to both Boeing and Airbus in airliners. It was not only a
    blow to competition when the merged company shut down the California
    assembly lines, it certainly cut down on the options for aerospace
    workers as well.

  • RonT

    “Boeing was of course also a defense contractor, but top management had traditionally kept the civil and defense divisions separate for fear that the defense team might infect the civilians with their culture of cost overruns, schedule slippage, and risky or unfeasible technical initiatives.”

    Do you have a reference for this? This reads as if you just simply made it up.

  • Mark Trevor Burrell

    Really, the author is right about the heat capacity of plastics versus aluminum alloys in general, and it is not a technical essay. As the technological advances and incest in R&D among racing cars and aircraft are on-going and long term, take a look at Ferrari’s mid-engine plastic cars such as the 455 and the new Italia, and how well they burn, and their current flagship, the F12, which is all aluminum. Carbon resin cars are the ultimate edge in F1 racing, but for daily driving, safety, and repairability, the small gain in strength of carbon over the safety, and long life of aluminum is not, apparently, good enough for the street. Aluminum is much more practical, and an engine fire may only do damage under the hood, not ignite the entire vehicle like, well, burning, molten resin.
    The only hole I find in the story is the absence of any reference to Alan Mulally and his departure, and when and if that caused Boeing’s problems with this airplane.

    • Max Grotius

      No, not really. This was the FAA’s comment on fire risk and burn-through testing:

      “Composite structure is performing better than metal and insulation
      together … With composites you provide (travelers) a
      longer time to get out.”

      • Andrew Cockburn

        The FAA fire tests were conducted on an intact fuselage. As composite expert Derek N. Yates warned in his 2008 paper (revised 2010) on the fire smoke and toxicity hazards associated with the use of epoxies for fuselages. “By far the majority of survivable crashes (73%) involve ruptured or opened fuselages which render the latest FAA insulation schemes useless. We banned epoxies for interiors decades ago due to their severe FST [fire, smoke, toxicity] hazards, but now we build whole fuselages and wings based upon similar epoxy chemistry.” Given the fire and concurrent fuselage rupture on the recent Asiana crash at San Francisco, the surviving passengers may have been lucky they were not flying plastic.

        Serious readers may be interested to know that the reliability problem with composites stems from the fact that while aluminum degradation is visible in the form of cracks, composite delamination (the separation of the layers of which it is composed) is invisible on the surface and no inspection technique has yet been devised to detect it.

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