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Labor Shortage, Outdated Technologies, Quality Control Failures: The Reasons Behind Boeing’s Dark Streak

Labor Shortage, Outdated Technologies, Quality Control Failures: The Reasons Behind Boeing’s Dark Streak
Boeing is facing a series of safety-related incidents that have raised concerns about the company’s reputation and aircraft safety. (iStock)

In the last years and particularly in the last months, Boeing has faced a series of safety-related incidents that have raised concerns about the company’s reputation and aircraft safety. Boeing’s reputation has been significantly impacted by these incidents, prompting calls for increased focus on safety and quality assurance. We contacted Salim El Mernissi, Lead solution Strategist and aeronautics specialist at software provider Mercateam, to know more about the origin of this dark series.

Boeing seems to no longer be the company it used to be. For several months, problems have been piling up for the American aerospace giant. In a previous article, we have compiled a list of the numerous incidents and accidents that have occurred recently. Let’s try to explain the origins of this streak of incidents and consider the strategies that Boeing and other stakeholders in the aerospace sector can employ to address the situation.

What factors can be attributed to the multitude of failures experienced by the aircraft of the American giant Boeing?

Salim El Mernissi: “Following the pandemic, the aerospace sector witnessed a surge in orders, marking a true boom. However, this success comes with a double-edged sword, presenting the industry with significant challenges. Among these challenges, four main ones stand out:

  1. Strong Recovery of the Aerospace Market: In 2020, the aerospace market experienced a spectacular halt for aircraft manufacturers. The sector has now regained – faster than expected – pre-crisis performance. In recent months, major manufacturers have also recorded some of the largest contracts in their history (e.g., Ryanair, Air India, and Indigo), putting pressure on production deadlines across the entire supply chain and exacerbating quality and safety risks.
  2. Supply chain crisis: The shortage of raw materials directly affects manufacturers’ costs and production lead times. Several suppliers, especially the most vulnerable ones, drastically reduced their production capacities to survive the COVID crisis. The recovery has strained the entire chain, and many stakeholders struggle to ramp up production, exacerbated by the conflict in Ukraine (leading to increased prices of titanium and steel) and recruitment challenges. Airbus and Boeing have had to lower the number of aircraft they can deliver this year.
  3. Shortage of Skilled Labor: This is critical to meet the increased production rate. The COVID crisis led to significant workforce reductions due to waves of early retirements. The recovery thus accentuates the urgent need for massive recruitment. This comes with an increased risk of inadequate mastery of complex processes and increasingly significant quality issues.
  4. Outdated Technologies: The use of obsolete technologies masks important automated alerts. But it is essential for identifying failure risks. For example, the lifespan of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) electronic components used in embedded equipment has greatly decreased (3 to 5 years on average today compared to 20 years in the 1970s). It is therefore essential for players in the aerospace sector to integrate innovative technologies. These technologies must not only structure our operations but also anticipate and mitigate risks, ensuring increased reliability and safety for our teams and end-users. This is essential in an approach to limit technical risks (related to potential impacts of modifications), control costs, and ensure the sustainability and availability of equipment.

These various factors impact Boeing’s control over the quality of aircraft in terms of manufacturing, parts storage, and overly short production deadlines. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigation, Boeing failed 33 out of 89 product audits conducted by the agency regarding the manufacturing of its aircraft following the incident on the Alaska Airlines plane.

As Boeing is one of the two main commercial aircraft manufacturers, its shortcomings only add to the questions facing the entire sector.”

How can we explain a lack of quality control?

Salim El Mernissi: “The increase in order books leads to peaks in workload for production teams, especially in the context of a shortage of qualified manpower. In response, companies in the sector are massively recruiting, and for the sake of efficiency, they may be inclined to overlook certain key steps in training and upskilling operational teams. Especially considering that the tools used in the field are not suitable for guiding teams’ know-how to ensure compliance with procedures and processes as defined by quality standards.

These combined phenomena increase the pressure and stress on production teams, leading them to prioritize production deadlines at the expense of quality controls. This, in turn, multiplies the risk of errors and negligence during quality control processes, especially given the complexity of aircraft manufacturing processes.”

What could have gone wrong concerning the quality controls performed?

Salim El Mernissi: “Drawing a conclusion on the causes is challenging, as we would need to await the conclusion of ongoing investigations. However, the deficiencies in quality controls at Boeing can be explained by several factors.

Firstly, the pressure to meet production deadlines with a reduced qualified workforce significantly increases the risk of errors and omissions during quality control.

Another possible reason could be a lack of communication and coordination among stakeholders in the chain. From design to production and subcontracting, multiple actors are involved in a complex process involving numerous interconnected components and processes. These factors also contribute to making it difficult to detect and correct potential defects during quality controls.”

In your opinion, what strategies should Boeing and other stakeholders in the aerospace sector employ to address the situation?

Salim El Mernissi: “Vigilance in the aerospace sector must be observed at all levels, from the design and manufacturing phases of aircraft to their continuous operation and maintenance. However, the manufacturer bears the primary responsibility for the proper functioning of these aircraft.

For example, on Thursday, March 7, 2024, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) noted that the incident involving the Boeing 737 Max 8 in February—during which a pilot reported that the rudder pedals were jammed during landing—occurred just under a year after the aircraft was delivered by Boeing to United, on February 20, 2023, highlighting the manufacturer’s responsibility.

The main areas of concern encompass three critical aspects. Firstly, internal processes within the manufacturer must be meticulously managed, including design, risk analysis, manufacturing processes, testing, and maintenance, all conducted in adherence to regulatory standards. Secondly, ensuring adequate training and knowledge transfer processes related to quality requirements is essential. This involves providing engineers, production operators, flight crews, and maintenance operators (both internal and external) with the necessary training and knowledge to maintain quality standards. Lastly, control and traceability of the supply chain are paramount. This entails conducting strict audits of suppliers, components, parts, and aircraft throughout their lifecycle to ensure quality control and traceability.

A significant aspect of addressing current challenges lies in digital transformation. This entails facilitating improved communication among various actors in the supply chain through the transparent sharing of data. Such initiatives not only enhance transparency and trust but also contribute to boosting operational performance across the board.”

What technologies can then be mobilized to improve quality control?

Salim El Mernissi: “Technologies equipped with artificial intelligence offer promising prospects for enhancing quality controls in the aerospace industry. These advancements allow for more precise defect detection, efficient predictive maintenance, and optimization of production and maintenance processes.

Several technologies play crucial roles in enhancing quality control within the aerospace industry. One such technology is Computer Vision, which utilizes AI algorithms, particularly deep learning, to identify defects that may not be visible to the human eye. Additionally, Advanced Data Analysis facilitates the correlation of quality data with process data, enabling the prediction of potential failures and the improvement of predictive maintenance through machine learning techniques. Non-Destructive Testing methods, when enhanced with AI, allow for the inspection of materials without causing any damage. Furthermore, Advanced Simulations, powered by AI, enable the prediction of aircraft behavior and the evaluation of system performance, contributing significantly to quality assurance processes.

These tools are decision-support solutions and cannot currently replace human action. They must therefore be integrated into organizations where quality processes are mature and where employees are competent in their assigned tasks.”

Generally speaking, do quality control issues not affect all sectors today?

Salim El Mernissi: “Indeed, quality is one of the pillars of industrial production. These issues are recurrent in various industries but may not always be visible or made public. They gain prominence when they impact the safety or health of end consumers.

One of the most notable examples dates back to 2016 when Ferrero recalled millions of Kinder Bueno chocolate bars in several European countries due to the possible presence of plastic pieces. This recall was implemented as a precaution after a consumer reported finding a small piece of plastic in a Kinder Bueno bar.”