Following two fatal crashes of Boeing 737 MAX 8 jetliners in October 2018 and March 2019, regulatory authorities around the world grounded the 737 MAX aircraft series for an indefinite time period, as of March 13, 2019.
As the investigations continue, no one knows if the plane is truly dangerous. What does seem to be the case is that Boeing’s response to pilot concerns, dating back months, was inadequate. I’ve seen automakers jump more aggressively on prospective issues with entertainment systems than Boeing seems to have acted on reports that the MAX autopilot tends to push the nose down under certain conditions after takeoff. It’s possible that Boeing has been more active behind the scenes than what has been reported, but the information made public hasn’t been fulsome.
The news has got me thinking about my own experience with the aerospace industry. There’s something cultural about the avionics and aerospace industries, the Defense Department and the FAA; they are impervious to ideas. The status quo cannot be unseated.
I have spent close to 40 largely futile years attempting to make those companies and government agencies understand that their quality systems for electronics are seriously deficient. In my opinion, the manufacturing requirements for electronics assemblers that have been approved (and occasionally mandated) by the Defense Department, NASA, FAA and Boeing can actually degrade electronic components and could potentially cause system failures. It’s the same sort of refusal to listen that members of the Allied Pilots Association reported after meeting with Boeing executives last November. Every other industry, from automotive to medical instruments, has been eager to learn, but not the people who dominate aerospace.
In 2010, a Boeing engineer recommended that the company’s training staff attend one of my Science of Soldering classes to evaluate my claims that they are teaching the wrong things. The training department refused. Later that year, the then-president of Boeing put me in touch with the company’s director of global strike systems. Again, there was no interest in actually getting together.
Boeing is not alone. In 1985, when I was conducting workshops for new engineers at the U.S. Navy’s Soldering Standards Branch in China Lake, CA, the top man said, “I believe what you are showing me, but I can’t tell the admiralty that we’ve been doing this all wrong.”
Again in 2010, I conducted a workshop for the Defense Department’s soldering standards group at the U.S. Navy’s support center in Crane, IN. The Navy’s approach to soldering consists of soldering components in a solder pot prior to final assembly in the circuit board. This approach is actually very reliable, but it’s also time-consuming and not possible for field work. I showed a simple technique that would achieve identical reliability with fewer steps—and, it could be applied anywhere. My validity of my technique was subsequently verified by a laboratory analysis commissioned by the Navy. The Navy’s response was that, since the reliability results were identical, there was no reason to adopt the more efficient method.
In the early 1990s, I grew frustrated that so many flights were being delayed or cancelled because of electronic system failures. When I audited repair systems at two legacy American airlines, I was horrified by the abuse to which circuit assemblies were exposed. Planes stayed in service primarily because of massive redundant circuitry. Responding to the concerns in my report, one of the airlines said it would sue if I ever told anyone what I saw. (I haven’t flown that airline since, despite having lifetime “platinum status” with the company as a frequent flyer.)
NASA’s soldering expert once told me that the only time she could evaluate my soldering approach was on her lunch hour.
Perhaps the root cause of the indifference is the miniscule chance that a component failure will lead to injury or death. Redundant circuitry kicks in when a primary circuit fails, so everyone gets home in one piece. But the flying public does pay a cost, because repairs are necessary when something fails, even though the something has backup. The next time your plane doesn’t leave because of a systems failure, thank the techs who built the unit or the other techs who damaged components during “repair.” All those failed units were built to Class 3 standards. One might think that the people in charge would want to know why failures occur and whether they can be prevented. That’s the usual way in American industry—just not in the avionics industry.
Editor’s note: Jim Smith began work in electronics assembly in 1965 and founded Electronics Manufacturing Sciences in 1981 to teach soldering as a unified science. Thousands of engineers, technicians and managers worldwide have attended his "Science of Soldering" classes. Jim’s articles have appeared in more than 100 publications worldwide. His "Unconventional Wisdom" column appeared monthly in ASSEMBLY Magazine for more than 10 years and he remains a regular contributor to the magazine. For more information, visit www.emsciences.com.