Sunday, January 20, 2013

High Tech Projects can have Serious Complexity Issues

Boeing is the leader in air craft manufacturing, and the Dreamliner is characterized as the most advanced, best performing and most comfortable passenger plane to date. The approach the company took in the design and building of the plane is just as revolutionary.

Boeing took a radical approach to working with many suppliers -- 787 development and production involved a large-scale collaboration with numerous suppliers around the world. The manufacturer assigned the global subcontractors to do as much assembly themselves as practical, and deliver completed subassemblies to Boeing for final construction. The intent was to have a leaner assembly line and lower inventory, with pre-installed systems reducing final assembly time by as much as three days.

The aircraft was designed to become the first production composite airliner, with its fuselage assembled in one-piece composite tubular sections instead of multiple aluminum sheets, the approach used on most modern aircraft. Its "fly-by-wire" approach is the most extensive implemented, outside of the U.S. military.

But, as with many complex technological undertakings, problems materialize, sometimes even after the project is stamped "done" by management. In fact, with the case of the Dreamliner, serious concerns have arisen regarding electrical problems. And, with an aircraft, such problems translate into the safety of passengers, crew and others. Human life is at stake when 200+ people are traveling at subsonic speeds. So, caution is always called for, as the recent grounding of All Nippon Airway's fleet of Dreamliners shows.

What can information technology professionals learn from this on-going story? In the past, all products were handmade, the work of artisans rather than manufacturers. Cars, clocks, and firearms, for example, started out as being made one at a time, and each iteration was subtly different than the one the craftsmen finished just the day before. Over time industry has learned the value of standardized, interchangeable parts, and ultimately, about mass production. Even "mass customization." Though the retro movement highlights handiwork, for most products, systematic production yields far better products at much lower costs.

This FastCompany article discusses how NASA makes their onboard shuttle software. Take a look at NASA's checklist (PDF) to see how 100% defect free is necessary when lives are on the line.

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