Looking at that track record, many engineers are scratching their heads. Engineers are trained to evaluate and mitigate risk. Every day, they build cars, trucks, airplanes, elevators, rockets, medical devices, and other products that have to control a package of energy. Sometimes that package is powerful, but engineers generally find a way to regulate it. In almost every case, they are successful in handling gasoline, rocket fuel, electricity, and, yes, lithium-ion batteries.
But in almost no case do they smack their hands together and say, "The risk is zero."
It's hard for most of us to imagine the external pressures that must have been brought to bear on Boeing staffers. For the past two-and-a-half months, Boeing has been deluged with press inquiries. Its story has been told in virtually every newspaper and radio broadcast. Its engineers and executives have lived on precious little sleep. And its stockholders have undoubtedly been breathing down the necks of management. So a public discussion of engineering risk probably hasn't come up high on the company's priority list.
For those reasons, it's much easier to say the risk is zero. That's what consumers want to believe about every product they touch, anyway. And it's what they usually believe when something goes wrong and they start phoning lawyers.
So the easy solution is for the company to say "zero." No risk. It's impossible. Fire can't begin, develop, or be sustained.
If those folks at Boeing wanted to be a bit more accurate they could have claimed that there would never be a fire from whatever cause they had removed from the list of potential causes, which it seems that they have done. But there are always other failure modes that can cause problems, and getting rid of all of the possible failure modes is a HUGE effort, perhaps not even possible. On top of that, just one bullet fired from the ground could, if it impacted the battery box, cause a number of failure modes. That is more of a problem with military aircraft, but none-the-less it is another potential cause. In this day and age we do have those who do that sort of thing, like crashing planes int buildings.
On the other side, it is a wonderful thing to be invincible, and quite traumatic to lose one's invincibility. Perhaps we have some folks like that at Boeing.
ScotCan, your example is a perfect one. I worked at companies in the late 80s where MBAs and the bean-counting, short-term-profitability concept they brought with them had a direct, negative effect on the company's product quality, performance, and time-to-market. And the arrogance...well, that was amazing. OTOH, I also worked at a company that eventually got sold and disappeared because it didn't have realistic budgets or product launch timelines, yet had one of the most innovative product ideas and engineering I've ever seen.
Your point is well taken, William K. If they made their claims with regard to one possible cause, it would be easier to accept. But when they still haven't nailed down the cause of the Logan Airport fire, how can they definitively say there can't be another fire?
@charles, the minute an engineer hears this is more than upsetting; it absolutely goes against the grain of both training and experience. Most of us can relate to relegating a potential problem to "that's never gonna happen," only to have it happen in real life. Lessons like that should only have to be learnt once, and to have management proclaim there will be no more fires is the pinnacle of outrageousness and folly.
The question of whether engineers could have foreseen the shortcut maintenance procedures that led to the crash of American Airlines Flight 191 in 1979 will probably linger for as long as there is an engineering profession.
More than 35 years later, the post-mortem on one of the country’s worst engineering disasters appears to be simple. A contractor asked for a change in an original design. The change was approved by engineers, later resulting in a mammoth structural collapse that killed 114 people and injured 216 more.
If you’re an embedded systems engineer whose analog capabilities are getting a little bit rusty, then you’ll want to take note of an upcoming Design News Continuing Education Center class, “Analog Design for the Digital World,” running Monday, Nov. 17 through Friday, Nov. 21.
Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.