This is a weekly Supply Chain Matters update on our ongoing coverage of the latest crisis involving Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner program, that being the grounding of all operational aircraft.

In our previous Commentary Four posting on February 4th, we noted that the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) had reached out to experts within Naval Surface Warfare Center and a battery expert from the U.S. Department of Energy in conducting ongoing tests of the lithium-ion battery and its related electrical systems. The NTSB was further made aware by Boeing of the prior battery replacement history of the aircraft and will use these data to determine any relevance. After formally reporting quarterly earnings, Boeing’s CEO Jim McNerney indicated confidence that a root cause will be determined and further played down reports that the aircraft had a succession of battery problems that led up to the grounding. He is also quoted as indicating that “we have no idea yet’ what caused the batteries to burn.

In its weekly update last week, NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman confirmed that that agency has concluded that the battery involved in the 787 fire that occurred on a Japan Airways aircraft in Boston was involved in a “thermal runaway”, causing that battery to reach an internal temperature of 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The NTSB however continues to not know what caused a short-circuit in the battery to prompt the reaction. Chairwoman Hersman indicated that the NTSB was weeks away from being able to conclude as to what caused the battery “thermal runaway” and what corrective measures will need to be taken. The Japan Transport Safety Board investigating the separate in-flight fire involving an All Nippon Airways 787, after conducting CAT scans of the damaged batteries in the ANA incident concurred with the ‘thermal runaway” condition. Their analysis found damage to all eight cells of the battery.  However, both agencies appear to be pursuing different paths as to root cause. Investigators are now reported to be diving into additional parts of the aircraft’s electrical system.

Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported a significant new twist last week, with indications that Boeing is pursuing possible design changes.  These include increasing the separation between cells in the lithium-ion batteries, design changes to keep the cells more rigid and an enhanced containment box to house the battery and contain chemicals or fire escaping from the battery. According to the WSJ, Boeing indicated that hundreds of engineering and technical resources are working around the clock to resolve the battery issue. The U.S. Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) granted Boeing’s request to conduct a special test flight which Boeing 787 test Feb_2013was completed on Friday of last week. (See Boeing photo which was tweeted) If Boeing were to come-up with an interim design change involving the battery system, it would have to be approved by regulators and verified in flight testing, all of which will take-up additional time. The WSJ speculated that: “Barring a breakthrough, some pessimists predict that designing and installing a new battery system could take as long as a year.”

The WSJ indicates that carriers around the globe with grounded 787’s are receiving regular update briefing, which is a credit to Boeing. However, given these pessimistic indications of coming up with an approved fix, Boeing current 787 customers and Boeing’s 787 supply chain has some difficult challenges in the weeks and months to come. With last week’s statement from Boeing indicating its intent to stick with the production schedule of 5 Deamliners per month, this OEM is positioning lots of staging space to inventory some expensive semi-finished airplanes while investigations continue.

One other interesting development stemming from the ongoing 787 crisis comes from rival Airbus. This weekend, the Financial Times reported that Airbus has confirmed that it was re-considering its use of lithium ion batteries on its new A350 aircraft, opting instead for use of traditional nickel cadmium batteries.

Bob Ferrari