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The Dreamliner Grounded And Boeing’s Future

Boeing Dreamliners are grounded all over the world. The American super plane in trouble. We’re looking at Boeing’s misstep.

All Nippon Airways' Boeing 787 "the Dreamliner" parks on the tarmac at Haneda airport in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 18, 2013. (AP)

All Nippon Airways’ Boeing 787 “the Dreamliner” parks on the tarmac at Haneda airport in Tokyo, Friday, Jan. 18, 2013. (AP)

When it comes to American manufacturing, there’s no bigger or prouder name than Boeing.  America’s number one exporter in a time when the country needs exports.

So it matters when Boeing’s big, new, much-ballyhooed, next-generation airliner – its marquee product – takes a hit.  And right now, every Boeing Dreamliner in the world is grounded.

Fires onboard.  Emergency landing.  Issues with a battery.  And down it’s come.  With this product and this company, the story of why matters.

This hour, On Point:  the Boeing 787, the Dreamliner, on the ground.

-Tom Ashbrook


Matthew Wald, reporter for the New York Times. He’s been covering Boeing and the Dreamliner. You can read his latest article here. (@mattwaldNYT)

Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group Corporation, which conducts research and provides information on the aerospace and defense industries.

Dominic Gates, aerospace reporter for the Seattle Times. You can read his latest article here. (@seatimesaero)

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Investigators in the United States and Japan indicated on Tuesday that many questions remained unanswered in their search for the cause of two incidents in which lithium-ion batteries burned on Boeing 787 aircraft.”

The Seattle Times “In 2006, a devastating lab fire in Arizona showed just how volatile Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner lithium-ion battery can be if its energy is not adequately contained. A single battery connected to prototype equipment exploded, and despite a massive fire-department response the whole building burned down.”

NBC News “Boeing’s new-model 787 is receiving plenty of attention lately – but it’s not at all the kind of buzz the aircraft maker had been hoping for with an aircraft that carries such high hopes it was dubbed the ‘Dreamliner.’ ‘Welcome to the age of social media, Boeing,’ quipped Michel Merluzeau, managing partner with G2 Solutions and a longtime aviation analyst.”

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  • Stephen_Mangion

    Is a picture worth a 1,000 words?
    (Please verify that the picture is for real and not a hoax, photo-shop etc  . . . )

    • http://onpoint.wbur.org/about-on-point/sam-gale-rosen Sam Gale Rosen

      I can verify it was provided by the Associated Press and the Japan Transport Safety Board. So anything is possible, but seems for real.

  • AC

    which factory are these coming out of?

    • http://twitter.com/Dragonsong73 Eric R. Duncan

      I think assembly is occurring here in the Washington state plant, but there is a good deal of outsourced components manufactured in other places/countries

      Edit: Because I found the correct location of final assembly

      • AC

        i thought that they’ve been moving a lot of the assembly over to the N Carolina plant; i was wondering if it could be boiled down to a logistical problem due to moving…

        • http://twitter.com/Dragonsong73 Eric R. Duncan

          Yea I know fuselage construction was going great guns at the North Charleston plant here in SC. So I had the same thought. But the list of component manufacturing locations reads like a who’s who of international tech manufacturing locations. I now wonder if it was due to some lacking whole systems analysis.

          • AC

            oops. i meant N Charleston!! I’ve been going back and forth and pass the plant on the way to the airport….

  • Shag_Wevera

    Speaking as a member of the working poor, I don’t give a damn what happens to Boeing.  I have no faith in their patriotism or altruism.  If they die, something else will replace them.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      Yeah, but plenty of ordinary folks work for Boeing. And the high entry costs to commercial jet construction are foreboding.

      I remember when Gateway was the #1 selling computer brand. Replacing them was very easy–entry costs to that industry were very low.

      As far as patriotism and altruism go, it’s not that simple. I wish it were. But I have a simple proposal for (most) corporations: You stop your image ads, stop pretending to “care” (a la Ben & Jerry’s) in order to get us to not regulate you, and we’ll stop asking you to pretend to care.

  • ToyYoda

    Well the market doesn’t seem too concerned.  The stock went from $77 to $74, that doesn’t seem to be a big hit to me.  It’s still up over 5% from it’s October lows.

  • William

    Airbus 380 has it’s share of problems with wing cracks and engine failures it is just not Boeing having problems with a new plane.

  • Robert Taylor

    I am wondering if anyone has looked into the possibility of the cabin preasure causeing problems with the batteries.

  • ToyYoda

    There was a recent report stating that air travel is as safe as ever; 2011 was a record year for safety, and 2012 broke that record.  I wonder if status quo takes a dip when a new design gets introduced and any flaws need to be discovered through disaster then hammered out?

  • ToyYoda

    Is there a  tension between FAA safety regulations and bold new airplane designs?  MIT came out with a design that uses 70% less fuel, and allows for quieter cabin flight.


    It’s been out for 2 years.  And the technology to build this is well within our reach.  I would love to see something like this fly.

    • Acnestes

      There is an unresolvable conflict of interest within the FAA’s mandates.  On the one hand, it’s supposed to promote the aviation industry and on the other hand it’s supposed to create and enforce safety regulations.

  • Peter Van Erp

    Did the decision by Boeing to move it’s headquarters to Chicago effect corporate emphasis on the design of the 787? 

  • Walt B

    It seems to me that the expertise of pilots mitigates these aircraft problems. I’d take flying in a plane with a pilot who has trained for years to deal with emergencies over driving my car on the interstate where all you need to get behind the wheel is to demonstrate you can parallel park on an empty curb. Sure the thought of an airplane accident is worse than a car accident, but the reality is that even in these emergency landings, the passengers are safer than when they get in their cars.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000504390944 Elizabeth Curtiss

       Not a lot a pilot can do about a plane whose systems totally fail. Especially not after her or his windshield has broken.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Consider the drive across industries to bring products to market faster cheaper better. When testing is reduced, risk is assumed.
    Testing is particularly important when integrating complex components and systems into even greater complex systems.

    Typically test and integration efforts are underfunded because in general, too many people in management and business don’t view testing as contributing to manufacturing and delivering the product. Also integration and test occurs at the end of the engineering process so with schedule slips, the pressure is even greater when components are ready for integration and test.

    Is this a demonstration of the cost of this ‘on the cheap’ pathology?

  • http://wh.gov/IVp4 Yar

    One of the most deadly technologies has been the smart phone. Think about it.  
    I would love to pick up a dozen or so of those suspect batteries on the cheap.  They would make a great electric vehicle. 

  • burroak

    If the average person cannot understand these technological advanced machines, then why are American airline companies outsourcing not only the mechanical maintenance, repair, and servicing but parts manufacturing? What is the cost of the A through Z quality control?
    I remember hearing a newstory last year about American airline companies outsourcing the mechanical maintenance of their fleet. That, to me is concerning. These American companies should train and hire American skilled labor to perform these speciality jobs. Is it because the shareholders would rather receive a one million dollar annual bonus and forgo giving a skilled American worker 60,000.00 per year.
    I see, save a buck, risk losing a life.

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    I HOPE it is just a hiccup.

    My Prius doesn’t pollute when it isn’t moving. Having a bunch of planes NOT spewing jet fuel exhaust while taxiing or sitting at the gate would be a huge health benefit.

    You can smell that nauseating stuff inside the plane with the doors closed, clearly their air handlers don’t clean much. Some airports have half hour or more STANDARD taxi and wait for take off time. People are breathing a lot of bad stuff.

  • ToyYoda

    Could these batteries introduce a whole new line of terrorist attacks on airplanes?  Instead of bringing a bomb on the plane, one could bring a series of batteries like laptop batteries, then somehow jack into the plane’s electric system, and overload it, and start a fire?  Perhaps you just need to short an outlet that could be found near the bathroom stalls?

    • Michael Carbin



    I would have gone with the LiFePh chemistry used in CYLINDRICAL cells like those sold by A123. They are very safe.Maybe a Boeing Order would have prevented an AMERICAN Battery Co. from going bankrupt?In retrospect it wasn’t that smart to use the lithium cobalt cells. They have great energy density but they pose the greatest safety risk. Saving a few pounds on an aircraft just doesn’t seem worth the risk to me. You noted they were used in the Tesla Roadster but they’re also used in all those laptop batteries. You know, the batteries that have caught fire so many times. 

    Japanese Batteries == Yuasa cells are a different chemistry than the Volts cells. Yuasa cells are
    LiCoO2while Volt cells areLiMn2O4. The Yuasa cells are high energy density
    cells as we might expect in aircraft in order to minimize weight. The Yuasa
    cells also tend to have a higher combustion rate that the Volts. The CoO2 cell
    chemistry was used in the Tesla roadster.

  • TomK_in_Boston

    Forbes has had a lot about the 787 and its extreme outsourcing:



    It looks like the worst corporate practices run amok, with too much attention paid to highly paid management consultants. Can it be coincidence that BA simultaneously moved some production to “right to work for less” SC and moved its HQ to Chicago? Looks to me that a great company that was once run by engineers has been taken over by romney types.

    “In the past, Boeing has outsourced manufacturing but maintained tight control over design. In that way, Boeing was able to make sure that the pieces that other companies made would fit together well because Boeing engineers understood what each part would do and how they would interact when the plane was flying.

    But with the 787, Boeing departed from this approach. Instead — to save money and supposedly to boost quality and speed time to market — Boeing outsourced 60% of the design and manufacture to suppliers. This shifted the investment on to the suppliers who would only get paid once airlines started paying for the 787s.

    But it also meant that each supplier of, say, the wings or the batteries that supplied power to the engines or auxiliary systems, would use their own approach to both the design and the manufacture.

    For its part, Boeing assumed that its suppliers would share its commitment to quality and meeting ambitious delivery deadlines. But this did not happen and the 787 missed at least seven deadlines and went way over budget.”

  • DrewInGeorgia

    At least Boeing is acting responsibly in trying to come to grips with the problems. I would like to express my relief that these issues were being monitored closely enough that they did not ultimately result in fatalities. The media is coming down on Boeing like a ton of bricks, I don’t recall as much fervor over the failings of the F-22 . The Raptor’s failings did result in fatalities and to the best of my knowledge the issue has not been adequately diagnosed or resolved. How’s Lockheed Martin’s business doing?

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Then where was the current overload sense circuitry? Did they get no warning or is there no such monitoring designed to guard against a known problem for lithium batteries?

  • http://wh.gov/IVp4 Yar

    I wonder if battery testing includes multiple pressure cycles?

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    There is a lot of energy in jet fuel, too.


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000504390944 Elizabeth Curtiss

    After listening to this show, I wouldn’t go near one of these things, regardless of its battery issues. How are those additional miles of wiring safe-guarded against overheating and sparking each other when idling for hours on an overcrowded runway? How is all this being monitored and controlled for quality over time? Forget it, Boeing.

  • Jasoturner

    It’s been many moons since I took a composite materials course, but back then I seem to recall that composites didn’t just fail, they tended to fail catastrophically.  The idea of this thing having composite materials in the wings seems a little spooky.  I know more than one bike riding friends who has had to trash a four-figure composite bike frame after fairly innocuous crashes.  A wing failure would be the end of the Dreamliner.  At least an electrical subsystem issue can be rectified (pun not really intended, but there it is.)

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/JXSANCUDPIKQSPID5KT2U4XK5Y TF

      “Electrical”? “Rectified”?

      I don’t know how many people appreciate that kind of pun here.

      Seriously, as someone who hasn’t managed to destroy their old chromoly steel frame Trek, how much more durable and malleable are big jet wing surface alloys now compared to composite? Maybe that’s an “Ask the Pilot” question.

      • Jasoturner

        For the record, I ride the last fully lugged steel Bianchi that they made…

  • Trond Peersen

    I have great faith in Boeing and the 787 Dreamliner.  Personally, I would not give a second thought to getting on one of the 787′s.  Boeing has a long history of successfully designing, testing and manufacturing big airplanes, most notably the 747.  Much of the recent concern has been hyped up because the 787 is not only a new plane, but a new way of manufacturing airplanes.  Still, I have full faith in Boeing.  My faith would be different if it was one of the relatively new airplane manufacturers that are emerging or a company that has build smaller mid-range planes and was suddenly introducing a big plane.  However, Boeing has proven that they know what they are doing and have some of the most stringent manufacturing specifications of any company.  

    • TomK_in_Boston

      Sure, but BA was a company run by engineers and there is mounting evidence that it has been taken over by financial manipulators. Look what happened to HP….but when your printer fails it’s not fatal.

      Did you see the picture of the battery? A fire on an airplane is no joke!

      The battery was subcontracted to a japanese co by a french subcontractor. I guess the idea was to minimize costs, but these delays will have costs soaring. I don’t think searching the world for the cheapest parts is a good way to build an airplane, whatever Bane Capital suggests.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.kay.7777 Gary Kay

    I smell the dead hand of multi-tasking; fewer and fewer assemblers doing more and more work in less and less time. And a little dose of technology which makes what was once simple more and more complicated.

    And we think of it as progress. LOL

    Oh! I almost forgot. Do everything as cheaply as possible. Outsource! Take advantage of the worldwide slave labor market.

    The more things change, the more they remain the same.

    • Eliezer Pennywhistler

      Oh, those poor (but well-paid) Japanese slave laborers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/justin.sorbello.9 Justin Sorbello

    As commenter have mentioned earlier, you can see the same significant problems with the dreamliner’s main rival plane the Airbus A380. After some pretty spectacular (but not resulting in a crash) single engine failures on the A380s, the entire fleet was like was grounded.


    These kinds of things happen frequently as they iron out the kinks in the production and new technologies.

    However, it must be said that how incredible it is that despite the fires in the Dreamliner and the engine failures in the A380 that no-one was injured. It’s a testament to the engineering and quality control process that despite failures, safety is maintained.  

    Instead of worrying about the risk or hazards, lets think about the great work by these companies to keep everyone safe and manage those risk to reasonably safe levels. 

  • LogicalChemist

    I’d point out that either through good engineering, or good luck, there have been no fatal crashes, despite the seriousness of the  problem  Going way back, the 727 had at least two fatal crashes due to its complicated flap system.  Under certain conditions pilots could simply lose control if they didn’t do everything just right.  It finally was modified to eliminate the most extreme flap position.  More recently, several of the Airbus planes have suffered crashes both from the control computers and other systems.

    Lets hope the 787 doesn’t go through a similar history, with loss of life.

  • LogicalChemist

    the call in number is not working

  • captnrobinson

    The problems with the 787 go back to the initial development schedule which marketing at Boeing buffaloed the executive management team into agreeing to over the objections of engineering. Senior engineers wanted 5 years minimum and preferred 6 years to develop the 787. The fools in marketing said, “We need to sell it in 3.” The EMT backed the wrong horse and committed Boeing to marketing’s fantasy.
    Marketing should NEVER be allowed to drive engineering decisions!

    Question: Why didn’t Boeing provide (and the FAA require) the LI batteries to have fixed fire extinguishers mounted for each battery pack?

  • Dewdle

    The 7E7/787 has been ground tested for 5 years and flight tested for over 3 years. WHY are these issues popping up now in rapid sequence ?

    • captnrobinson

       These problems are likely the result of the unrealistic development schedule. Engineers have been forced to play fireman and put out numerous teething (literal and figurative) fires instead of conducting an orderly development wherein time is allotted ahead of time to discover and correct foreseeable problems. The time pressure to deliver has been the problem.
        My source tells me these problems have become common since the former McDonnell Douglas executives have gained influence at Boeing.

  • liminalx

    Is this the one they “outsourced” and put the pieces together in a “right-to-work” state… no wonder it’s grounded

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    It is looking more likely that there was an internal short in the battery – a manufacturing flaw in the battery:



  • Jetero

    You can look to the use of Catia 5 and a drastic change in the engineering process for a source of problems with the 787.

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