Boeing Co. and its suppliers are betting a remedy for the glitches that grounded its 787 Dreamliners will be found soon, despite ongoing questions about the safety of the planes.
The aircraft maker is continuing production of the 787s and is still in the process of ramping up production to 10 per month later this year, even though safety regulators are widening their investigations. They have so far given only mixed signals on the possible cause of battery problems that have afflicted the plane.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board ruled out the possibility that one of the lithium-ion batteries was overcharged when it began burning in a Japan Airlines 787 on Jan. 7. The plane was sitting at the time on the tarmac of Boston’s Logan airport.
But investigators in Japan speculated late last week that the battery fire that forced the emergency landing of an All Nippon Airways flight last Wednesday may have been due to overcharging. Industry watchers noted that the safety board’s investigation was further along in terms of scanning the burnt batteries and accumulating data than the Japanese probe.
The safety board said it will move its investigation to Arizona on Tuesday to test the battery chargers made by Securaplane Technologies. In addition other components are being sent for testing to Boeing’s Seattle operations and to Japan.
Japanese battery giant GS Yuasa Corp., which makes the lithium-ion batteries for the 787s, remained at the centre of investigations Monday, as officials descended on the company’s manufacturing plant in Kyoto. “We will look into if the the work that took place, from design to manufacturing, was appropriate” was all a Japanese safety official could tell reporters.
At issue is the litany of possible causes for the fires, from the design of the battery cells to manufacturing, installation, use, the way in which the battery is monitored by other electronics and how it is stored while in use. Although seen as a mature technology now, lithium-ion batteries have had problems of burning in electronics such as laptops.
“With such complexity, it is difficult to diagnose lithium-ion battery problems quickly,” said Eric Stuve, professor of chemical engineering and a battery expert at the University of Washington.
The investigation has also drawn attention to the global network of suppliers behind the manufacture of a 787. Once heralded as a marvel of international technological cooperation, it has fallen under the glare of media reports. But industry watchers say this is simply how planes have been made for decades. Boeing has just raised the game with the 787 as airplane technology has become increasingly advanced.
Boeing has also used an elaborate, computerized system from Virginia-based Exostar to track and co-ordinate the aviation systems and parts made by hundreds of suppliers contributing to the 787. Industry watchers don’t yet foresee this supply chain being affected by the grounded planes. Boeing has orders for 850 more planes it still needs to build and deliver, and thousands more it expects to make and sell in the coming decades. “There’s probably not going to be any fundamental change in the supplier-parent company relationship, or in that whole chain,” said Rick Erickson, an aviation consultant in Calgary.
“What Boeing is, is an airframe manufacturer,” he added. In other words, the firm is largely an assembler of all the completed aircraft parts and systems coming from around world. And those suppliers have their own networks of parts suppliers. So, with an initial investment of $10-billion (U.S.) to develop the plane in the first place, Boeing has long-term, locked-in contracts with its major partners. And many of these also contribute to Boeing’s lucrative line of long-haul 777s and smaller 737s, as well as its military aviation contracts.
Boeing’s presence in Canada includes more than 1,500 employees, most of whom work in the company’s Winnipeg operations. The plant specializes in making composite materials and parts, such as entire wings for some Boeing models, Mr. Erickson said.
Boeing and the Canadian Auto Workers union announced over the weekend that they reached an early agreement on a new contract and a series of wage increases for Boeing’s 1,147 unionized Winnipeg workers. Boeing also has some 600 vendors and suppliers in Canada, 200 being major suppliers, according to the company.
Aviation watchers say the grounding of the 787s so soon after their introduction puts the certification process into question. “It’s highly unusual though for a major airframe to be grounded six months after the airplane was first flying in commercial service,” Mr. Erickson said. This has raised speculation that Boeing may be on the hook to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than a million dollars a day to the few airlines who own the 50 787s currently operating, but which are now grounded. There’s also the potential for further millions of dollars in costs if Boeing needs to overhaul the design of the battery system as a result of the investigations.
“Fortunately a company like Boeing can do all kinds of things,” Mr. Erickson said, looking at the options open to Boeing to compensate airlines. “They can increase the warranty time. They can reduce the price of parts. They’ve got lots of [options]. They don’t really have to take this on the teeth in terms of a cash outlay.”