Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliners grounded due to safety issues

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Jan 16, 2013– The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today grounded the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners today. This was followed by similar directives from European, Japanese and Indian authorities. The FAA issued an “Emergency Airworthiness Directive” in which it said that the directive was being issued to all owners and operators of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, due to concerns that the Lithium Ion batteries on board could result in fires on board, a really scary situation if you are up in the air with nowhere to run.

The FAA said that “This emergency AD was prompted by recent incidents involving lithium ion battery failures that resulted in release of  flammable electrolytes, heat damage, and smoke on two Model 787-8 airplanes. The cause of these failures is currently under investigation. These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the
electrical compartment”.

Here is the link to the document.

Meanwhile the National Transportation Safety Board has started investigating the battery burning phenomenon. Below is one of the pictures of a burnt out battery on the Japan Air Lines 787.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner burnt battery

Why this news concerning airplane safety on the Industrial Plant Safety website, you may ask…well, there are two reasons. The first reason is these kind of batteries are used in manufacturing plants too, as part of power supplies for Uninterrupted Power Supply systems, forklift battery packs and other areas. These kind of accidents could result in industrial fires too. Not sure if any industries are looking into these aspects of these kind of batteries. It is well known that electrolytic batteries are considered to be hazardous, as they emit Hydrogen, which is a flammable gas and can explode easily. Thus battery rooms in plants where banks of batteries are kept should be considered as hazardous areas and provided proper ventilation, gas detection systems  and/or gas monitors that would generate alarms if the LEL (Lower Explosive Limit) crossed safe limits.

Regarding the Lithium Ion batteries (like the ones in the 787), not sure if they are used in industrial systems to a large extent as of now. But they are surely used in iPhones, laptops and other portable devices. The problem with these is that on overheating, they can catch fire and when they catch fire, they also release Oxygen, which makes it a vicious circle of more fire and more Oxygen, making it difficult to extinguish…scary on a plane, but surely also scary in a petrochemical plant for example.

The second aspect is that this is not the first time that there have been safety problems with the Dreamliner, even in the few months that they have started flying commercially. There have been other safety incidents such as window panes breaking, oil leaks from hydraulic systems  and others. The whole thing calls for a closer inspection of the manufacturing practices being followed, not only in the airline industry, but also elsewhere. In earlier years, most manufacturing was done in the plant itself and the parts that were outsourced to other manufacturers were in close geographical proximity to the main plant. This meant that tighter control over manufacturing quality could be maintained. Now manufacturing of many items (including the Dreamliner) is spread out over large parts of the world. These outside suppliers make the components  and then finally these are only assembled (like a kit) in the main factory. Surely this must lead to quality issues as it is difficult to maintain the same level of quality at so many different plants, belonging to different owners and then assemble the final product and then expect it to be as good as if it were all manufactured at that location?

In the light of this experience, the whole manufacturing strategy that has taken root in the boardrooms of corporations must be revisited and modified.