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OM in the News: Just How Reliable are the Boeing 787 Batteries?

March 1, 2013
Burnt 787 lithium battery

Burnt 787 lithium battery

For an interesting discussion of reliability when you teach Chapter 17 in our text, we turn to The New York Times (Feb.27, 2013) article on how U.S. and Japanese aviation authorities have confronted a steep learning curve trying to unravel what caused last month’s battery failures on a pair of Boeing 787 Dreamliners. The lithium-ion batteries are commonplace in consumer electronics and electric vehicles, but despite being lighter and more efficient than older technology, they have never been used in aircraft as extensively as on Boeing’s flagship jetliner. After 7 weeks of nearly round-the-clock efforts, the National Transportation Safety Board has failed to find the root cause of the dangerous battery malfunctions that grounded the entire 787 fleet. Industry and government officials on both sides of the Pacific increasingly are skeptical a breakthrough is imminent.

Before approving the Dreamliner to begin carrying passengers in late 2011, regulators embraced Boeing’s risk assessment showing that the chance of a 787 battery meltdown was about one in 10 million flights (That means R= 0.9999999). That is roughly 100 times safer than some of the industry’s most reliable jet engines, which on average malfunction and have to be shut down roughly once every 100,000 flights.

But the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sees Boeing’s initial risk analysis as unrealistic, particularly considering variations among parts. “When carefully examining the nature of the material or the tolerance possible within the manufacturing process, it is difficult to arrive at those [risk] numbers,” writes DOE. In commercial use, the batteries have now ruptured and burned twice in less than 50,000 flights (or an R=0.99996). Contrary to FAA projections of an extraordinarily low likelihood of a serious airborne mishap, the Energy Department says the malfunction rate of the batteries has been higher than would be acceptable for uses on the ground. “That wouldn’t be a reasonable number for the auto industry.”

Discussion questions:

1. Why do Boeing’s reliability numbers differ so greatly from observed failures?

2. What are the options for operations managers at Boeing at this point?

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