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Top 13 In 2013, #10: Boeing’s Dreamliner Takes Flight, Kind Of

Tue, 12/10/2013 - 1:00pm
Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

Between December 9 and December 21, we'll be counting down the 13 biggest stories on Manufacturing.net throughout 2013. From pig problems (see below), to Tesla's on fire, and being held captive in China, we'll be looking into just why these stories resonated with readers here and elsewhere. For the full list, updated daily at 1:00pm EST until the 21st, visit the Top 13 In 2013 page.


After years of development, supplier searches and assembly, Boeing began to ship out its long-awaited, high-tech 787 “Dreamliner” jet to airlines globally throughout 2012 and well into 2013. The twin-engine jet airliner was built to be 20 percent more fuel efficient than the 767 it was meant to replace, being the first major airliner to be built primarily with composite materials. Add to that a modern-looking interior, noise-reducing chevrons and the best engine technology, and it was a no-brainer purchase for many of the biggest globally-service airlines.

Back in 2003, Boeing announced the 787 would be assembled in Everett, Wash., but instead of the traditional process, in which meant that parts from global suppliers were all brought together in Everett and assembled by Boeing’s own workers, the company wanted suppliers to do more assembly work themselves, and ship completed subassemblies. This was meant to lean out the assembly line and reduce the time to build a plane.

This didn’t go as Boeing had hoped. Suppliers had trouble completely subassembly work, in part due to a lack of fasteners. They just didn’t have Boeing’s experience in such critical matters. And that’s when the production troubles — and subsequent delivery delays — began to tally up.

Jump to early 2013, which is where this story picks up. In early January, airlines began to see issues surrounding the batteries that power the emergency locator transmitter. All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, which were two of the first airlines to start flying the 787, grounded their jets for safety checks after a cockpit message on an ANA flight showed battery problems and pilots detected a burning smell. This came after the battery pack of a Japan Airlines 787 caught on fire while the plane idled on the tarmac.

Not long after, the FAA ordered that all 787s be grounded until the batteries were deemed safe. NTSB suggested the battery packs showed signs of short circuiting, and a chemical reaction often referred to as a “thermal runaway,” where every increase in temperature causes even hotter temperatures, like a feedback loop. GS Yuasa, the battery manufacturer, said it was doing everything in its power to help determine what was happening. By the end of the month, Boeing said it had not slowed 787 production, and saw no reason to stop using the GS Yuasa batteries, despite them being at the center of the NTSB probe.

In a strange twist, the NTSB approved the safety of lithium ion batteries as cargo inside of planes, but not the efficacy of the Boeing batteries. In other words, those batteries could fly within the belly of a Dreamliner, but not if they were connected to the plane.

Meanwhile, Boeing was hard at work on a new battery system that had many safeguards to prevent overheating. On March 15, Boeing Co. Chief Project Engineer Michael Sinnett said, “We could be back up and going in weeks and not months.” The company came up with 80 possible causes and then designed new systems to prevent each from happening. New wiring and a new enclosure were on their way, too.

On May 21, United Airlines restarted its use of the 787. It was a step in the right direction, but it hasn’t stopped otherissues from arising here and there.

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