The Dreamliner and Telecom

by Colin Berkshire

A couple of months ago I wrote a series of critical articles on the brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Yes, a bit off topic from Telecom, but a great lesson on corporate and governmental politics, massive engineering projects, and spin. None of those things are far from the world of Telecom. Besides, we are all geeks and the 787 is literally the biggest thing to happen in tech in perhaps a decade.

Following the publication of that article I was “informally” contacted by Boeing engineers who displayed admirable loyalty to their company by challenging my observations.

Since then, all Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s have been grounded, deemed unsuitable to fly by every government on the planet. Yes, they will get back in the air, probably with some modifications and a healthy dose of political influence. But it hasn’t been since 1973 when the doors were routinely being blown off the DC-10 airliners since an entire line of commercial aircraft has been grounded.

I think the challenges to my article and the grounding of the 787s because of engineering problems are both related and endemic of a deeper problem…one that also risks the health of Telecom…more on that at the end.

The Boeing engineers questioned my sound-level measurements, arguing that I didn’t have paperwork for my device showing calibration back to some national calibration reference point. Granted, I was just using a readily available commercial grade device, but really, folks…that’s a cheap shot. I’ve self-validated the device and it is close enough for government work.

But what cannot be argued is that the noise in the 787 is deafeningly loud. It is louder than the interior of a 737. It is 6db higher than the volume of the Boeing 777 and 747 (more than double the volume). Whether the correct reading is 87 dB or 90 dB, the Boeing 777 is a mere 79 dB using the exact same device.

The route I must routinely fly and that was using 787 Dreamliner’s is now flying the venerable but aging 777 and the familiar and remarkably comfortable 747-400 now, at least temporarily. So I have been able to re validate my readings, I stand by them. The 787 interior volume is hugely louder.

Despite all the Boeing spin on how wonderful the 787 is for passengers, I will remark that this old 777 that I am now in is not only quiet, but the window shades pull down and the room is dark enough to sleep in. My wife can usually sleep through anything, and even she complained about the 787’s hot windows and brightness from those “dimmed” electronic windows that are more like green accountant’s visors than window shades.

This brings me back to the unofficial Boeing challenges and Telecom.

Over the past 20 years I have observed the trend where we win battles based increasingly on politics and pressure than on engineering. It started with “political correctness” but now every decision in companies seems to be an argument on who will be offended, how we need to be a part of the team, and even how defending our company even when it is wrong is a necessity simply for reasons of national pride. To me, this is wrong.

My response to the Boeing folks was simple: provide me with the official numbers for the noise levels in all current Boeing aircraft. Surely, Boeing carefully measures sound levels and knows what they are. If my measurements using my “uncertified” sound level meter are wrong, then what are the official Boeing numbers?

Silence from Boeing. Then, I am informed that the Boeing noise level readings are proprietary and confidential and are not for publication. Oh, really, guys, we know that answer is purely political spin.

There was a day when the Internet protocols were moved forward based upon sound engineering and a desire to produce the very best solutions possible. Specifications were alive, and enhancements were introduced regularly. A group of engineers could sit down and discuss the technical merits and move a standard forward.

Today it seems that the IETF is purely political. It’s members are political appointees. Are these folks really engineers at all? I do think they are sometimes simply lobbyists for the companies that pay their salaries. (No surprise there!)

This is killing Telecom. Companies push forward standards because it supports their patent suite, or their existing products. Those are wrong reasons.

We need only look at the Boeing 787 Dreamliner to see where this all heads. You see, the Dreamliner had the most accelerated, most abbreviated, shortest certification process of any modern commercial airliner (according to those same folk over at Boeing.) when the goal is to compress certification rather than do good engineering I call the decision political. I think we all know that 5 airplanes landing a total of 500 times is not the same as one airplane landing 500 times. Over time, things happen, jiggle, and go weird. That’s why a car with 75,000 miles fails in so many weird ways that 1,000 cars with 75 miles each just don’t exhibit.

We really need to find a way to tame politics in our decision making process. It leads to bad standards, bad engineering, and even gets us into wars.

I’m sure Boeing will get the 787 back up in the air. It will take some politicking and a little bit of engineering. But that won’t make it a pleasant flying experience. Meanwhile, I am told that the bathroom doors have been recognized as a real problem and will be retrofit. (I still think Boeing should have enough experience making airplanes to know how to design a bathroom door by now.)

As we do our Telecom jobs, I suggest we strive to listen more carefully and try to separate political decisions from engineering ones.

A political explanation is to tell a customer why their SIP devices don’t work in their branch office because of firewalls and NATing. An engineering solution is to develop an environment where the protocols simply work in all normal environments.

A political explanation is to explain why a simple SIP telephone even has over 100 settings. An engineering solution is to tighten up the specification so that there are no settings, or perhaps, two.

Learn to tell the difference between politics and engineering. Well all have better products.