An Urgent Message

By Doug Bartholomew Print this article Print

Product life-cycle management is helping to get Boeing's 787 off the ground, but is a key factor in Airbus' A380 delays.

An Urgent Message

For Kevin Fowler, Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2006, was another long day at Boeing. As the vice president of systems integration, processes and tools for the 787 Dreamliner, the company's first completely new airliner since the early 1990s, it's his job to ensure that all the pieces come together smoothly. As part of those duties, he was leaving the company's offices in Everett, Wash., to catch a flight to France, where he would pay a visit to Labinal, the wiring supplier for the 787. On the way to the airport, an urgent e-mail landed in his BlackBerry.

The message was from his boss, 787 program chief Mike Bair, and he wanted to know if Fowler had heard the news out of Europe.

Half a world away, Airbus chief executive Christian Streiff had delivered a speech announcing that the company's A380 superjumbo would be delayed by at least two years. The delay and resulting changes to the program were expected to cost Boeing's fiercest competitor as much as $6 billion in lost profits, by Airbus' own reckoning. The cause, Streiff said, was due to compatibility issues with the sophisticated computer-aided design software used by engineers to architect the A380.

Airbus engineers in Germany, where the plane's rear fuselage section was being built along with the hundreds of miles of electrical wiring that power the main cabin, were using an older version of Dassault Systèmes' trademark Catia computer-aided design software—version 4. Engineers in Toulouse, France, where the A380s were being assembled, were using a newer version of the software, Catia V5.

When the first wiring bundles, large packs of preconfigured wires to power everything from lights to in-seat entertainment systems, began arriving at the assembly plant in Toulouse last June, Streiff said they didn't fit properly from the rear section into the front section of the fuselage. Workers tried to pull the bundles apart and feed the wiring through the fuselage by hand, but with 300 miles of wire and some 40,300 connectors on each plane, the immensity of the problem soon became obvious. An unthinkable blunder had happened—as the computer-aided design files were passed between the different versions of the Catia software, the company said errors occurred. And software experts familiar with the incident say the errors included changes in measurements. Those errors are going to cost Airbus billions.

"The root cause of the issue is that there were incompatibilities in the development of the concurrent engineering tools to be used for the design of the electrical harnesses installation," Streiff said in his October speech about the delay. In other words, information from the two systems could not be exchanged accurately, or at the very least, Airbus did not integrate them properly. "We have to update and harmonize the 3D-design tools and database—and it will take time to do this," he added.

The question in the e-mail on Fowler's BlackBerry back in Everett was blunt. Boeing was using the very same Catia software from Dassault as a cornerstone of the 787 program. Could the same errors derail the Dreamliner?

"My answer was no," Fowler says. "I have confidence in our program. I think we understand what it takes to put together the product, and we understand what the issues are. I also believe we've taken the right steps to prevent the same thing from happening here."

But others aren't so sure. Computer-aided design (CAD) software, such as Catia, often anchors product life-cycle management (PLM) suites, software packages that have grown in popularity as well as in sophistication and complexity, along with computing horsepower and collaboration technologies like the Internet. Today, they are capable of managing every aspect of a product's life cycle, from concept and design, to manufacturing, maintenance once the product is sold, and even through to its eventual retirement. In effect, they can follow a product, be it a toaster or jet, from cradle to grave.

Like any other large software implementation, be it enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM) systems, there is plenty of room for error. "On paper, PLM looks like it delivers a perfect world," says Robert Bean, chief operating officer of Kubotek USA, a Marlborough, Mass., firm that specializes in CAD systems. "But we're not living in a perfect world. And when you're talking about something as complicated as an aircraft, you're dealing with a massive movement of data." The data warehouse for the Dreamliner project, for example, is 16 terabytes.

In fact, Kubotek released a study in October, the same month Streiff revealed the extent of the problems at Airbus, highlighting widespread compatibility problems between different CAD programs. The survey, which queried 2,800 CAD engineers, found that 50% of all respondents indicated they had to redesign a new part or tool on a weekly or more frequent basis after 3D models were exchanged between CAD systems, due to errors that were introduced such as changes to measurements.

For now, Airbus' woes have provided a boost to Boeing and its Dreamliner program. Boeing finished 2006 with its best year ever for commercial aircraft sales, taking in firm orders for 1,044 planes and beating Airbus for the first time since 2000. And with the Dreamliner raking in 157 firm orders in 2006—making it Boeing's most successful new launch—Fowler and the 787 team have every right to be feeling the wind beneath their wings. Still, say industry observers, they would be wise to keep their fingers crossed.

"If it happened once, it could happen again," warns Ian Massey, a former controller with Airbus, and now an executive with airplane financing company Republic Financial of Aurora, Colo.

Next page: Rewards, and Risks, of PLM

This article was originally published on 2007-02-05
Doug Bartholomew is a career journalist who has covered information technology for more than 15 years. A former senior editor at IndustryWeek and InformationWeek, his freelance features have appeared in New York magazine and the Los Angeles Times Magazine. He has a B.S. in Journalism from Northwestern University.
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