Boeing Dreamliner problem deeper than safety concerns
Reoccurring problems with the lithium ion batteries used in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner have led to ongoing safety concerns. And with many engineers due to retire from the company, there's concern that American students won't be able to fill those spots.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft was supposed to change the way we fly. Instead, it’s created a series of emergency landings.
With incidents in Boston and Japan both involving onboard fires, the Federal Aviation Administration has grounded the Dreamliner for obvious safety reasons. On Sunday, the National Transportation Safety Board declared that the two incidents appeared to be different in at least one key way. The battery fire in the Boston incident wasn't overcharged, where as Japan incident, Japanese safety officials said, was at least due in part to an overcharged battery.
The aircraft uses ion lithium batteries, the same type of battery used in laptops — different technology than any plane before it. But these batteries emit heat, and in the Dreamliner, on two occasions, they have heated up and caught fire.
Miles O’Brien, a broadcast news journalist specializing in aviation, space and technology and science correspondent for PBS NewsHour, says the Dreamliner is an airplane that’s different on many levels.
"(Among them), the use of carbon fiber and the use of electrical systems in lieu of pneumatic systems and ductwork, and bleed air that comes off the engine in order to power systems,” he said. “The whole idea is to make it lighter and thus more efficient and Boeing succeed on that front.”
The Dreamliner uses 20 percent less fuel than the smilarly sized 767, an appealing prospect for airlines.
“But when you head to the absolute outskirts of technology on so many levels, inevitably in something complex as this, you're going to have things that come to bite you,” he said.
This is a new problem, O’Brien says, because lithium ion batteries haven't been used in aircraft systems.
"Lithium ion. whether it's in your laptop or a Chevy Volt, they heat up and they can burn,” he said. “You have to come up with ways to guard against that, to shield them and to protect them from causing more significant damage.”
O’Brien said the burning problem should’ve been discovered in the process of development, but could’ve been something that becomes evident through the use of the aircraft.
"I haven't seen any evidence yet that there is a structural problem with the 787. Carbon fiber is lighter, it's very different, it's stiffer than aluminum,” he said. “Any problems with the carbon fiber structure, we won't find out for years."
But Boeing, and indeed the entire U.S. economy, has problems beyond the faulty lithium batteries.
The engineers who designed, built and tested these Boeing 787 Dreamliners are aging and ready for retirement. And Boeing doubts they can replace their retiring workers with American workers, because of the current educational level of U.S. students.
Cynthia Bir, a biomedical engineer and professor at Wayne State University, says at her school, 100 percent of students graduating from the College of Engineering last year were able to find a job.
"I think that just represents the shortage of engineers that there are here in the U.S. right now,” she said.
The U.S. falls behind the international engineering curve, starting at a young age.
"It's not just what we're graduating from college, it's how we're prepping our students before they enter college. The (National Science Foundation) has had strong programs to educate in science and engineering in the technologies, but we need to strengthen those even more — all the way down to our elementary schools,” she said.
If schools in the U.S. started teaching science, math and engineering in a way that students can enjoy, Bir says, the subjects wouldn't be so scary to students.
“If we would prepare our students better, we wouldn't have that issue — they would be excited to go into that field,” she said.
Companies will continue to look abroad for workers if changes aren’t made to the U.S. educational system, Bir says.
“It's just a matter of understanding what's required to do that,” she said.
As for Boeing and the challenges they face moving ahead, Bir says, Boeing has recognized the issues with the Dreamliner and is dealing with them in an appropriate manner.
“They are technologies that are being used elsewhere, it's just a matter of making sure that they're safe in this environment,” she said.
"The Takeaway" is a national midday news magazine that features unique conversations about topics of the day with both newsmakers and diverse voices. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH Radio Boston.