RSS

Category Archives: System Review

Flying the Flaming Skies: Should You Trust the Boeing Dreamliner?

dreamlinerWhen a serious safety issue occurs, the normal engineering process tends to become quickly corrupted by management misdirection and stonewalling. Some prior examples of this are the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, and Toyota’s more recent “unintended acceleration” fiasco. And now, as I recently discussed in the DACI Newsletter, we have fires on Boeing’s new Dreamliner aircraft (“Boeing’s Flaming Lithium Batteries: Was This A Risk Worth Taking?“).

In the Challenger case, although the root cause was immediately known, it took a long time for the NASA managers to admit what they knew. This is because, prior to launch, they had ignored the pleas of their engineers, who had been very concerned about the possibility that a large and critical o-ring seal might fail catastrophically due to unseasonably cold weather. This is indeed what happened, but that simple fact was deliberately buried under NASA’s confusing jargon and misdirecting blather, until physicist Richard Feynman cut through all the nonsense with a simple science demonstration. At a hearing on the disaster, he showed how the o-ring became too brittle to perform its function when exposed to a frigid temperature. (You can see him dipping the o-ring material into a glass of ice water here; start at 1:57.)

With regard to the recent Toyota unintended acceleration issue, Toyota likewise tried to downplay the problem, until forced to address it because of the growing number of fatal incidents. (Note 1)

boeing_batteryToday, Boeing is faced with a crisis: the lithium batteries used in their new Dreamliner aircraft have caught on fire during some initial flights, forcing those flights to be aborted, and the fleet to be subsequently grounded while the problem is investigated.

Observations:

1. I have no proof of this, but it is my firm belief that there are engineers at Boeing who strongly recommended that lithium batteries not be used on the Dreamliner.

2. Using the batteries was not wise, since lithium batteries have a history of catching on fire. If the battery properties were clearly understood, there would not be incidents of lithium batteries bursting into flame in cell phones and laptops, and of being the cause of the tragic crash of UPS Airlines Flight 6 in December 2010.

3. On January 30 (after the flaming battery incidents), Boeing CEO Jim McNerney said, “We feel good about the battery technology and its fit for the airplane. We have just got to get to the root cause of these incidents and we will take a look at the data as it evolves, but there is nothing that we have learned that causes us to question it at this stage.” At the time of his statement, lithium batteries were known to have a history of catching on fire, which is at odds with Mr. McNerney’s purported optimism.

4. The steps to reassure the flying public that the Dreamliner battery system is safe should include:

a. Generation of a detailed analysis, vetted by an independent third party review, of the battery properties that affect the tendency of the batteries to catch on fire; e.g. chemistry, mechanical tolerances, operating temperature, charge/discharge rate, etc. The lithium batteries used by Boeing would be redesigned accordingly.

b. Confirmation of the analysis by a demonstration showing that the redesigned batteries, with proper construction and application, cannot catch on fire when subjected to the worst case combination of variables (e.g. high ambient temperature, high charge/discharge rates, shock/vibration, aging, etc.)

c. Even after the battery system has been redesigned, the possibility will remain that a rare and unintended event (e.g. extreme shock, or higher than normal discharge) could ignite the batteries. Therefore there should be a demonstration that a containment design will successfully prevent a fire in the battery system from breaching the containment and threatening the flight. (Such second-stage protection is routine for critical hazards, and is especially necessary because of the extreme volatility of lithium.)

A much simpler option, as I earlier recommended, would be to discontinue the use of the hazardous and unstable lithium batteries, and replace them with stable batteries such as nickel metal-hydride. (Following this logic, Airbus has recently pulled lithium batteries from its new A350 design.)

The bottom line: We cannot expect zero risk, but we should expect that proper engineering be applied to known hazards. For example, gasoline and other fuels are highly flammable and very hazardous, but because of proper engineering we all feel comfortable with the gas tanks that are strapped under the cars we drive, and with the large containers of fuel that accompany us on the planes we fly. We do not expect gas tanks to spontaneously ignite, ever. The same reasonable expectation should apply to batteries.

Note 1. Although Toyota has maintained that a faulty floor mat was the root cause, I believe that there was an additional serious problem in the electrical system, based on the report of a driver who experienced uncontrolled acceleration until he turned off his cruise control (see “Toyota Unintended Acceleration: “No Electronics-Based Cause”: Not True & Misleading.” Related posts are listed under the Protect Yourself tab, Health & Safety, here). My guess is that the cruise control design was inadequate from a safety standpoint, and that the problem was quietly remedied by Toyota.

 

Tags: , , , , ,

The Economic Literacy Of The GOP Presidential Primary Candidates

As mentioned previously (It’s Just A Systems Thing: An Engineering Thinking Review Of Government As A System), there are compelling scientific reasons to minimize the size and functions of the federal government. Which of the GOP presidential primary candidates best seem to appreciate this?

(Quotes paraphrased):

Newt Gingrich: “I’m a really fascinating and smart and brilliant guy.” Newt thinks he can dream up unique ways to make the federal government run better.

Mitt Romney: “I’m a really fantastic business manager.” Mitt thinks he can manage the federal government better.

Rick Santorum: “I know how to work with Congress to get things done.” Rick thinks he can get congressional representatives to work together to better run the federal government.

Jon Huntsman: ” — おれや分からないスよ.” (Jon likes to speak Mandarin; not sure what he thinks about the economic role of the federal government.)

Rick Perry: “My goal is to make the federal government as inconsequential in your lives as I possibly can.” Rick wants to shrink the size and power of the federal government.

Ron Paul: “The federal government is out of control and we must cut its budget by a trillion dollars.” Ron wants to shrink the size and power of the federal government.

There are many issues to consider when electing a president, but if the economy were the only one, then Rick Perry and Ron Paul are the only candidates who have clearly expressed an understanding of the inherent limitations of government. The other candidates, typical of those with over-sized egos and/or a lack of understanding of basic economics, suffer from the delusion that — if only they were in charge — the federal government would finally be able to do grand things.

-Ed Walker

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

A Practical Alternative to Government Regulations

An Engineering Thinking Solution For Protecting The Public

Let’s challenge the assumption that we need the government to protect us, by regulating commerce at all levels.

Why Regulations Are Not Effective (proof by counterexamples):

a. The Food & Drug Administration is supposed to protect us from tainted foods and harmful drugs. It does neither, by its own admission (“FDA Science and Mission at Risk“).

b. The Security and Exchange Commission is supposed to protect us from financial crooks. It doesn’t (remember Bernie Madoff?).

c. Restaurant inspections are supposed to protect us from food poisoning. They don’t (you’ve seen the newspaper reports of folks getting ill at restaurants, all of which are regularly inspected).

Here’s the basic underlying reason why regulations are ineffective: Although the government is never shy about dipping into the pockets of the taxpayer, there will never be enough money to pay for enough inspectors to inspect businesses often enough to eliminate the problems that the inspectors are supposed to find and stop. Why? Because there is no financial incentive built into this open-ended regulatory system. Regulators are not able to make a profit at regulating, unless they are corrupt and take bribes. Unfortunately, such corruption is not uncommon.

A second reason is that the public says, “Yeah, but we have to at least try to stop the problems or they would get completely out of hand. So even though regulations are not completely effective, we’re still better off having the regulations.” This reasoning, however, will not stand up to analysis.

One, it assumes that other factors, such as loss of business and potential lawsuits, are not significant. To the contrary, these free market incentives are very powerful motives for keeping businesses honest, even in the absence of regulations. In fact, for the great majority of honest and competent businesses, government regulations amount to a useless added burden that drives up costs. And these costs are ultimately paid by you, the consumer.

Second, it assumes that there is no better alternative. To answer this, Engineering Thinking offers the following plan:

The ET Plan For Eliminating Costly Regulations

Replace them with the following single requirement:

Each business shall be required to prominently post an easily readable  certificate at the entry to their place of business (or on their web portal, or on their products, etc.)

-A red certificate if they have no liability insurance

-A green certificate if they have liability insurance (as certified by the applicable government accounting agency, with the insurance carrier and amount of coverage noted on the certificate).

Failure to post a certificate, or posting a false green certificate, will be punishable by a minimum jail term and fine.

That’s it. You buy products or services from a “red certificate” business, you’re largely on your own. Its prices might be lower because they carry no insurance, but your risk will be higher if you have a problem. If so, you will still be able to sue, but you will have had fair notice that the business will likely not have enough assets to cover any damages.

The red certificate also allows small start-up entrepreneurs such as taxi drivers or hair stylists to get a foot in the door with clients who are willing to accept lower prices at increased risk. Presently, licensing and regulations often amount to a corrupt system where established wealthier businesses, through contributions to public officials who pass restrictive licensing/regulation laws, effectively block competition by making it too expensive for potential competitors to start a business. This limits consumer choice and drives up costs.

On the other hand, you may prefer to buy products or services from a “green” business. The prices might be somewhat higher, but you will have financial recourse if something goes wrong. Plus, you will be assured of obtaining safer products or services. Why? Because insurance companies do not like to pay for losses. An insurance company will not provide liability insurance to an unqualified person, so if someone claims to be, for example, a medical doctor, they will need to convince the insurance company that they are qualified to practice medicine. Plus, the insurance companies will provide their own ongoing inspections and monitoring to ensure that their clients maintain safety standards.

The new role of the government? To certify/monitor the financial health of insurance companies, to decertify/prosecute those companies that exhibit unethical behavior regarding claims, and to prosecute businesses who operate without an appropriate certificate. All of the licensing and regulatory nonsense simply drops away, because it is no longer relevant. Insurance companies will now provide the regulatory function in a cost-effective fashion.

The advantages of the above red/green plan are numerous: Lowers the cost to the consumer; eliminates the governmental regulatory bureaucracy and related inept  micromanagement; increases consumer choice; offers entrepreneurs a chance to get a business started; eliminates corrupt artificial barriers to competition; and last but not least, enhances consumer safety.

-Ed Walker

 

Tags: , , , , ,

Look At The Big Picture

One of the most important attributes of engineering thinking is to place things in perspective. Systems engineers, in particular, stand back and look at the overall manner in which the various major components of a system interact. They are concerned with ensuring, all things considered, that the system achieves the desired result (output), and that it is achieved efficiently (output versus cost).

An example will clarify this point. Many people are rightly concerned with the plight of the less fortunate. However, those who are taught that compassion is defined by how one feels (input), rather than the results achieved (output), are missing the big picture.

Certain celebrities, for example, will donate their efforts to raising large sums of money for charitable causes. The donation of time and talent is wonderful, of course, but it is only an input (dollars collected). What is the output? It may seem churlish to say, but if no effort is made to measure the output, and in particular the output/input (efficiency of how the money is used), then it could be that the effort spent is inefficient, wasted, or even worse, counterproductive (bad output).

Although those involved in the effort may feel good, such feelings sadly miss the point of a charitable undertaking. Charity is not about making the giver feel good, or to be congratulated and applauded by friends and admirers, it is about achieving a positive and efficient outcome, even if done anonymously.

To determine the output would require some follow-up work, to see what the dollars raised actually accomplished. But sometimes those who raise the money show up for the fundraiser and then disappear (although they may return the next year to do it again). You may hear them talk about the money raised this year versus last year, but rarely do you hear a discussion of the output and efficiency of the effort: lives saved, homeless rehabilitated, shelters built, or diseases conquered, per dollar raised.

Another example: by reading the paper one could assume that the success of a school is measured by the annual dollars spent per student (input). But with engineering thinking one is concerned with the larger system question, which is really a matter of economics: e.g. what is the average SAT score divided by the annual dollar per student (output/input); in other words, what is the efficiency of the school?

When deciding which car to purchase it would be foolish to just measure the amount of gas the car’s tank will hold (the input). If that were the economic issue, everyone would be driving vehicles with enormous gas tanks, probably even towing trailers full of gas behind them. But the total amount of gas is not really the issue, it’s the number of miles one will get per gallon of gas, or the output (miles) divided by the input (gallons).

One of the key ways to confirm that you are dealing with unscientific thinking is to see if the arguments are based solely on inputs. Such invalid arguments are frequently employed by bureaucrats.

A CLASSIC SYMPTOM OF BUREAUCRATIC (UNSCIENTIFIC) THINKING:
EFFECTIVENESS IS MEASURED BY INPUT, RATHER THAN BY OUTPUT/INPUT

Next post: How To Achieve Reliable Results

-Ed Walker

 

Tags: , , , ,

ET Extra: Protecting Your Life: More On Toyota Unintended Acceleration

More info on Toyota Unintended Acceleration has been posted in the DACI 1st Quarter 2010 Newsletter.

 

ET EXTRA: Unintended Consequences

Engineering Thinking Extra Is A Short Review Of A Current Hot Topic

An essential Engineering Thinking principle is thoroughness. This involves not only checking the details, but also exploring nooks and crannies to be sure that all the details were indeed checked. The best engineers will do this, plus will stand back and look at the big picture to try to spot unintended consequences; particularly when dealing with critical safety issues.

There is nothing more disheartening than thinking you’ve done a great job, only to find out later that you missed a subtle but important flaw, and you’ve made things worse instead of better. Despite our best efforts, this does on occasion happen to all of us, sooner or later.

A recent example of unintended consequences is the switch to efficient LED lighting to replace older incandescent bulbs used in traffic lights. Municipalities have found out to their chagrin during the recent snowy weather that LED lights do not emit enough heat to melt off any snow that may cover them up, resulting in traffic hazards and expensive manual maintenance to keep the lights uncovered. By contrast, the older inefficient incandescent lights gave off enough heat to melt any snow, so “snowy weather maintenance” was not required.

(Ref. “LED Traffic Lights Don’t Melt Snow,” by Mark Frauenfelder)

-Ed Walker

 

Tags: ,