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OM in the News: The Boeing 787 Lithium Battery Explosions

December 4, 2014
The damaged battery case from a Japan Airlines 787

The damaged battery case from a Japan Airlines 787

“Flaws in manufacturing, insufficient testing and a poor understanding of an innovative battery all contributed to the grounding of Boeing’s 787 fleet last year,” according to a new report by the National Transportation Safety Board (see The New York Times, Dec. 1, 2014). The report assigned in the starkest terms yet the blame for the 787’s battery problems.

The first battery episode occurred after a Japan Airlines flight landed at Boston’s Airport on Jan. 7, 2013 and was traced to one of its 2 lithium-ion batteries. The following week, a smoking battery forced an emergency landing in Japan, and prompted regulators to ban the jets’ flights until the problem could be resolved.

The NTSB found a wide range of failings among manufacturers and regulators. The battery’s maker, GS Yuasa of Japan, used manufacturing methods that could introduce potential defects but whose inspection methods failed to detect the problem. Boeing’s engineers failed to consider and test the worst-case assumptions linked to possible battery failures. The FAA failed to recognize the potential hazard and did not require proper tests as part of its certification process. The planes were allowed to fly again after Boeing instituted new safety features which added internal components to reduce the chance of overheating.

This was the first time large lithium-ion batteries were used aboard a commercial jet. But the NTSB investigation found that the manufacturing process allowed defects that could lead to internal short circuiting. GS Yuasa, the report said, “did not test the battery under the most severe conditions possible in service, and the test battery was different than the final battery design certified for installation on the airplane.” Boeing had initially determined that a battery cell might fail in 1 out of 10 million flight hours. Instead, by the time the two episodes happened, the 787 fleet in service had logged fewer than 52,000 hours. Both Boeing and GS Yuasa also underestimated the risks of a catastrophic failure. They relied on a single test, known as a nail penetration test, to simulate a short circuit to find out under what circumstances the battery might ignite.

Classroom discussion questions:

1. Why was Boeing’s reliability estimate so inaccurate?

2. How is this an OM issue?

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