Still waiting for the #TextBlade?

Back in January 2016, I wrote a supply chain case study about a company called WayTools and their ‘TextBlade’ miniature keyboard. Since the case study is essentially about the non-appearance of a product, at that time about a year late, I thought that I might be able to use the case study once or twice before events overtook me, with WayTools silencing all the doubters by bringing their product to market at last.

Some customers, having paid $99 for a product that was supposed to be out within a month, have now been waiting almost two years. They weren’t signing up to a kickstarter project: the gadget was presented as a finished design, ready for volume production.

The various problems that WayTools reported (via their corporate blog, and in a user community forum) made it very useful as a case study showing some of the things that can go wrong, both internally and in the supply chain. It became the subject of a couple of our exam papers, but I never expected that I’d still be talking about WayTools’ failure to deliver the product as 2017 rolled in.

Detail from the TextBlade case study

You can download a copy of the case study here.

Two years is a long time in the technology sphere: mobile devices and the way we use them might have changed a lot in that time. WayTools have been fortunate that there have been no really big advances. For the most part, Apple users still contend with the woeful Siri, which means that natural speech isn’t about to replace the keyboard anytime soon… but there are newer and better kids on the block. Cortana, Google Now, Assistant.ai, and Viv all want to help users to get things done without typing. Meanwhile, the iPad pro has appeared, with a pretty good keyboard of its own – essentially copying that found on Microsoft’s Surface Pro. Since these are built into the protective screen cover, they don’t occupy much space. Is there still a market for a tiny-teeny keyboard, nowadays? WayTools think so, and (as far as we know) they’re still doggedly plugging away at refining their product.

An urge to make the best keyboard they possibly can appears to be the main problem. In May 2015, they reported that they’d replaced the nylon ‘butterflies’ under each key with liquid crystal polymer, improving the feel and durability of the keyboard. That’s commendable, except that people who had ordered one had expected to receive it months before. What was wrong with simply making in quantity the product that the tech journalists had enthused about, back in January 2015? Why not hold off on any improvements until the “mark 1” product had been delivered, generating a few hundred thousand dollars in revenue?

Typing with the TextBlade

TextBlade should haven taken the world by storm… two years back.

The new, stronger ‘butterflies’ were found to cause defects during the assembly stage, and a new fixture had to be designed as a work-around… and so on, and so on. Right up until the present, as far as I can tell. A few customers have been invited to join the Test Release Group (‘TREG’) and they have received sample units, but there’s still no sign of order fulfilment being achieved.

I think we can all agree that introducing a two-year delay while you take something that works and ‘improve’ it until it doesn’t is a distinctly unusual business practice.

TextBlade product packaging

Some customers may have been waiting for this for almost two years. [image: mcttrainingconsultant]

I have no axe to grind: I’m not out of pocket by $99. I wanted a TextBlade, sure enough… but I decided to wait and see. Thus far, it’s been all waiting and no seeing, but that’s actually a good thing. I wanted a TextBlade… but I didn’t really need one. It would have been fun to pose with one in meetings and on flights, but I can’t point to any particular job that didn’t get done in 2016 and say that’s because I didn’t have a miniature keyboard to use with my iPad.

When I write about the sustainable supply chain, perhaps I focus too much on the supply side. A big part of being ‘green’ isn’t about shopping for products that are made from sustainable materials, or products with low energy consumption: it’s about doing without. It’s about recognising that what you have will do, and perhaps paying off your debts instead of buying more stuff that you don’t really need. It’s taken me two years to realise it, but WayTools and I won’t be doing business, even if they were to announce tomorrow that they’ve just landed a container-load of TextBlades at Felixstowe, with all quality problems finally addressed and next-day delivery guaranteed. I’ve coped perfectly well without, and I know that I can continue to do so.

You may think that $99 is a bit pricey for a keyboard, nowadays, but one school of thought holds that buying expensive things can actually be quite ‘green’ (unless precious metals are involved). Better that you should buy a single, high-priced item than buy a whole bundle of less expensive items, embodying more materials, requiring more logistics, perhaps being less durable, and ultimately representing more waste at the end-of-life. Smart consumption requires that we understand that cheap stuff isn’t necessarily good for us.

My TextBlade journey has turned out to be very inexpensive and very ‘green’ indeed. If it had really existed when it was first launched, I think I would have bought one. By now, the novelty would have worn off, and indeed the product might even have worn out… and even if it still worked just fine, the industrial design of the TextBlade is starting to look just a little bit long in the tooth, now. But instead of being a disillusioned customer, I still have my $99, no resources have been wasted (other than whatever is consumed in web browsing) and I’ve reached an endpoint where I no longer feel that I lack a little keyboard.

TextBlade customers have been remarkably patient, considering. Their good-natured humour at each delay has been kinder than the manufacturer really deserves at this point. Even the Twitter bot called @Failtools that sends out a regular ‘status update’ in the style of WayTools’ own news bulletins has a certain bitter humour about it – and delivers a salutary lesson on the subject of public relations in the Internet era.

Some good things are worth waiting for, without a doubt. Glowforge comes to mind: a desktop laser cutter/engraver that’s been delayed more than once. Consider me very interested, but not enough to actually bankroll the development process. Sometimes, the expectation is simply greater than the reality. That’s a consequence of the science that we call marketing, but perhaps virtual products that never arrive offer a new form of gratification, where you get all the excitement and expectation, and never face the disappointment that comes with actual ownership.

It’s certainly worked for me.

(Also, I got a case study out of this. Thank you, WayTools.)

Charged with Battery

As something of a model aircraft enthusiast, I’ve been hearing scare stories about lithium-ion batteries for over a decade – and they’re not just stories: every once in a while a model flier would leave a battery charger running in their vehicle, and suffer a fire that gutted it.

Any battery will get hot if subjected to an inappropriate regime of charging or discharging, but this kind poses additional hazards due to its chemical properties. I’m going to have to simplify quite a bit here, but basically the chemistry of the common lithium-ion cell leaves it vulnerable to a condition that is euphemistically termed “thermal runaway.”

Inside each cell is a cathode and an anode, separated by an electrolyte and a porous material called the separator.

If a component has a manufacturing defect, if it becomes damaged, if it’s short-circuited or perhaps if it’s made to work too hard, the electrolyte can catch fire – but that’s just the start. In the fire, the decomposition of the cathode and anode commonly release (among other things, if I have understood correctly) oxygen, and hydrogen. The release of oxygen in particular means that the more it burns… the more it burns. Naturally, the heat generated inside the cell means that its neighbours promptly get in on the act and the whole battery burns.

If this occurs in a confined space, such as that formed by the casing of a mobile ’phone, you get a small explosion – plus toxic gases released as the other components in the phone are subjected to extreme heat.

Oh – and lithium reacts with water. It’s not really going to be an issue by the time you notice that Samsung made you a smoke grenade instead of a telephone… but strictly speaking, you ought to use a powder extinguisher on a lithium fire.

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry says that “… there is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”

But then, Lord Henry never heard of the Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Last time I boarded a flight, they were talking about this ’phone:

“For safety reasons we don’t permit any model of the Galaxy Note 7 to be carried on board. If you’re carrying this device, please tell a member of the cabin crew.”

There are signs at check-in. There is coverage in magazines, on websites, on TV and radio. This is the kind of publicity that even Gerald Ratner would choke on.

Detail from the Emirates airline website

Detail from the front page at Emirates.com – the wrong kind of publicity

Launched on August 19th 2016, the Galaxy Note 7 was Samsung’s flagship mobile, and its specifications were impressive. Just five days later came news of a Galaxy Note 7 exploding, in South Korea. By the end of the month they had delayed shipments to South Korean carriers, although the next day the product launched in China. (Presumably this reflects a belief that the bad batteries were all to be found in a particular batch, rather than any belief that Chinese customers are inherently more fireproof or more expendable than Korean ones.)

Just a day later, Samsung announced the global recall of 2½ million ’phones, although at this stage it was voluntary. On October 6th a Southwest Airlines flight was evacuated due to smoke from a Galaxy Note 7, prompting the Federal Aviation Administration to instruct passengers not to turn on or charge the ill-fated ’phone – nor to stow it in cargo. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission urged Galaxy Note 7 users to cease using their phones, and carriers including AT&T and T-Mobile withdrew them from sale.

After a series of fires in replacement devices – those that had been subjected to additional inspections and quality control measures – Samsung finally threw in the towel, suspending production of the product and then announcing its end. The withdrawal of the Galaxy Note 7 left a highly unusual gap in the market because Samsung’s rivals commonly avoid bringing out competitor products at the same time of year, so customers who received a refund had relatively few options to spend their money on. Meanwhile, Apple’s share price surged, despite a recent lukewarm reception for their latest iPhone – a device most notable for the unpopular decision to remove the headphone socket.

Part of the problem here is the very personal nature of mobile ’phones: you put a lot of personal information on them including passwords and banking details; you store photos of your loved ones; you expect people to be able to reach you; you learn your way around the quirky operating system. Nobody wants to have to delete all their personal information and preferences, and give them up. Your ’phone is closer to you, for longer, than your loved ones – and you probably sleep with it on the nightstand. The idea that it might have harmed you, and that it will be taken from you – not because you broke it or lost it but because it’s no good – that feels like a betrayal. It seems that Samsung will continue to feel the effects of this problem for a long time to come.

On Supply Chain Radio they said that the times we live in magnify Samsung’s woes, because of the perils of social media. Certainly, there have been some great jokes about Samsung’s plight (see below) but I think our interconnected age actually makes it much simpler to handle a problem of this kind. For one thing, all Galaxy Note 7 users are online, by definition: they could be reached with a message about a product recall. Contrast that with the old days, when the manufacturer of a defective car would have to take out advertisements in newspapers, to tell the world how crappy their cars were. The new approach is free, and it’s accurately targeted: it need not scare off potential customers.

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7

Unboxing the Galaxy Note 7 [twitter user Marcianotech]

There is also the option of a software patch, delivered over the airwaves, to fix problems. Samsung tried a patch that would limit charging to 60% of capacity… but their ’phones kept on melting down, all the same.

Even when a fix can’t be achieved remotely, at least the connected nature of the surviving Galaxy Note 7’s offers a way to ensure compliance with the recall: presumably it would be simple enough to send out a software update that forces a shutdown – and once your smartphone has become a novelty paperweight (warning: keeping it near paper is probably a mistake) most users will be persuaded to swap it for something that works.

So, are all those defective telephones going to be remanufactured? No. Samsung has announded they will destroy all the returned ’phones. Given that the device sold for something like US$850, that’s an awful waste, but we’re now looking at a product that must be treated as hazardous. It can no longer be transported by air, or carried in the post. This leaves returned Galaxy Note 7’s scattered, rendering remanufacture uneconomical. Presumably, some recycling can still take place, if only to  salvage some of the more valuable metals – but almost all of the effort that went into making these ingenious devices is wasted.

Samsung Galaxy S7, burnt

Nothing beats that new gadget smell…

When Apple laptops were found to have hazardous batteries in 2006, they were quick to point out that the batteries in question had been made by Sony. Samsung has no such luxury: the Korean giant’s batteries were made by a subsidiary. Also, the remedy for Apple’s older laptops was relatively simple because the battery was removable. Samsung only recently switched over to a sealed in battery – presumably for reasons of waterproofing – and this has magnified their pain.

According to Credit Suisse, Samsung will have have lost nearly US$17 billion in revenue as a result of these problems.

Efforts to pack still more energy into a smaller, lighter devices continue.

Another Peculiar Patent

Rollin White was a machinist, working for Samuel Colt as a contract worker. At the same time, he tinkered with bits and pieces of scrap, and designed a firearm of his own. It wasn’t a practical or even workable design: it was inferior to existing handguns, but in 1855 White was granted a patent, number 12,648: “Improvement in Repeating Fire-arms”.

detail view from White’s 1855 patent

“People see me, Rollin…” – a detail from White’s 1855 patent

This would be of no significance whatsoever, were it not for the fact that White accidentally included a feature that nobody had patented in the USA. His weapon showed a cylinder bored all the way through, such that cartridges might be inserted from the back – just about the only sensible way to load many firearms.

Such a feature should never have been covered by a patent, because it was already commonplace. In Europe the Lefaucheux Model 1854 was already in production: a revolver using the new self-contained metallic cartridges.

Lefaucheux Model 1854 revolver

The Lefaucheux Model 1854 embodies the essential arrangement of a modern revolver – but appeared before the Rollin White patent.

In the USA, things weren’t quite so up-to-date, and revolvers used loose black powder. The owner of a revolver had to pour powder into each of the cylinder mouths, ram a bullet into place, and fit a percussion cap onto the rear of each cylinder cavity. The revolver gave you several rapid shots… but after that you had a fiddly job on your hands.

Samuel Colt also held some patents. Years earlier, he’d figured out how to index the cylinders of a revolver so that a fresh one was presented after each shot, based in part upon a mechanism that he’d seen used for a ship’s wheel. Colt’s patents were set to expire in 1857, however, and this led others to design revolvers of their own.

Illustration from Colt’s 1836 patent for a “Revolving gun”

Illustration from Colt’s 1836 patent for a “Revolving gun”

Among them were two partners whose names might be familiar: Horace Smith and Daniel Baird Wesson. They’d worked together before, and as Colt’s patent expiry loomed, Wesson was developing a new cartridge revolver. His research turned up Rollin White’s bizarre patent, and some potentially bad news: the “bored-through cylinder” was protected for years to come.

Smith and Wesson approached Rollin White, and entered into an agreement with him: White would be paid a royalty of 25 cents for every revolver they produced. In return, White granted them exclusivity, and undertook to defend the patent against infringement. Smith and Wesson moved fast: on the day that the key Colt patent expired, their workshops started volume production of their “Model 1”.

While it was in effect, patent 12,648 forced manufacturers other than Smith and Wesson to come up with some of the strangest handguns of the 19th century. There were tapered cartridges that loaded from the front of the cylinder; there were side-loading cylinders; there was a cheeky “dual ignition cylinder” that featured screw-in inserts for old-style percussion caps… that you promptly unscrewed, leaving you with what was effectively a “bored-through cylinder” that would accommodate cartridges.

Plant’s Manufacturing Company Front-Loading Army Revolver

Plant’s Manufacturing Company front-loading revolver. The funny little ‘bolt action’ is used to eject spent cartridges, forwards.

 

Brooklyn Firearms’ “Slocum” side-loading cartridge revolver

Close-up of the Brooklyn Firearms’ “Slocum” side-loading cartridge revolver: every chamber has its own sliding panel. The side-loading cylinder would reappear a century later with the heroically ugly Dardick 1100

 

James Reid Model No. 4 Revolver with a “Dual Ignition” cylinder

James Reid Model No. 4 Revolver with a “Dual Ignition” cylinder – cleverly circumventing the Rollin White Patent

Rollin White ought to have made out like a bandit: a 25 cent royalty represented a considerable chunk of the profit on a handgun that sold for $12.75 – not bad pay considering that he should never have been granted the license. In reality, White was kept busy with expensive lawsuits, and although the courts usually found in his favour, Smith and Wesson profited far more than the patent-holder. In an application to extend the patent on the grounds that he had not been fairly compensated, White reported that he had made $71,000 while Smith and Wesson earned over $1 million. As ‘An act for the relief of Rollin White’ the bill went clear through the senate – before being vetoed by President Ulysses S. Grant in January 1870. The patent had caused considerable inconvenience to those working to arm the forces of the Union during the American Civil War, and the former Commanding General of the United States Army wasn’t about to let that go.

Rollin White, not exactly a patent troll but certainly one of the more disruptive unsuccessful inventors of the 19th century, fell into bankruptcy… although ultimately he did somewhat better in the sewing machine business.

The patent was gone, but the lesson in how not to license intellectual property remains true to this day.

The Gaseous State

The question that I’ve been pondering this week: what if existing models of the supply chain are outdated, and a whole new dimension is required? We speak of workflow, liquidity, pooling of resources… but what if commerce no longer resembles a liquid, but a gas?

A liquid sloshes about, and finds its lowest possible level. We’ve seen that: work gravitates to the place where it’s cheapest (and where regulation and taxation are the least onerous)… but that’s only half the story. A gas expands until it fills every nook and cranny: and it keeps on pushing until the pressure is equal throughout the system.

This is the evolutionary change in the modern-day supply chain. From solid (we expect things to stay put, and we expect to do things the way we’ve always done them) to liquid (everything takes the path of least resistance and flows downhill) to gas, and the ‘new normal’ that everything is everywhere. Instant gratification, same-day delivery, and so on.

The future is... more energetic.

The future is… more energetic.

The change isn’t just a new challenge wrought by new expectations on the demand side, though: the fulfilment paradigm has also changed. New actors participate in the supply chain now, while old ones take on different and expanded roles.

The service sector is being shaken up by disruptive changes. People with a spare room in their home now use Airbnb to compete directly with the conventional providers of short-stay accommodation. People with a vehicle and time on their hands sign up with Uber, offering a service comparable to taxis, on a casual basis.

Manufacturing businesses aren’t safe from disruption of this kind. What’s to stop a manufacturer from selling idle machine time to anybody that can benefit from it? Twenty-five years ago, Prestige Garden Furniture of Bolton were making parts for the Jaguar cars that competed at Le Mans… with good data exchange formats and a growing list of successful collaborations, this sort of thing is only going to increase. Add in ‘the cloud’ and the notion that businesses can tender for work on a case-by-case basis, and the commercial landscape begins to look very different.

On the retail side, who’s to say that the next thing you buy will come from a conventional source? In some applications, a ‘previously enjoyed’ product might be just what the customer needs, simultaneously shielding them from tax and depreciation, and allowing them to feel better about their environmental impact… and in eBay citizens (and businesses) have an excellent marketplace in which to buy or sell with some confidence that prices are fair.

Finance has gone crowdsourced, too. Where entrepreneurs once had to meet with the bank manager, Kickstarter offers a way to fund everything from movies to gadgets, while peer-to-peer loans allow borrowers access to credit and give savers a decent return on investment… with no high street bank in sight.

This is the all-pervasive commerce of the future: where a vastly expanded pool of casual or unconventional actors provide additional capability. Ignore them all and go with old-style formal relationships if you must, but understand that there are a whole lot of other people out there who want to get involved – and might end up working for the opposition. Done well, the coordination of a set of such contributions could be a powerful strategic differentiator because there’s an army of people who could play a part, in every city.

What triggered the change that turned the liquid of old-style commerce into an all-pervasive gas?

Microwaves.

The cellphone changed everything. The Internet made a big change, for sure, but it was mobile that really let the genie out of the bottle. Once calls were make to a person rather than a place, a plumber no longer needed a relative staying at home to take calls and make appointments. Cutting out the ‘receptionist-at-home’ role (and there must have been many thousands of such people) meant they could take on paid work elsewhere. Mobile ’phones also meant a farmer would know if today was the right day to harvest his vegetable crop – and could perhaps secure a price with a buyer, instead of being at the mercy of a middleman. That same mobile telephone allows ride-sharing, live translation services, paperless ticketing and much more.

In my family, when we send holiday postcards, we don’t start by buying a postcard: we use our own photo, uploaded with an accompanying message to a print-on-demand firm who create the card and put it straight into the post. In effect we have become actors in our own supply chain, replacing the professional photographer who formerly earned royalties on their images. We’ve eliminated the foreign leg of the postal service, too: never again will we queue in the bureau de poste and request “un timbre pour l’Angleterre”… and the likelihood that the resulting card will be delivered by the Royal Mail is declining, too: there are so many others who could bid for the contract.

The world has changed, and the lesson to be learned here is not to be the old-style incumbent, selling pre-printed postcards in a digital age. Like any paradigm shift, there will be winners and losers, and the first step towards becoming a winner is to be aware that the shift is underway. The future is digital, no doubt, but it’s also amorphous, chaotic… and gaseous.

Scheiss Glumpf

We learned a new phrase from our German friends this weekend, or perhaps a part of a phrase: Scheiss Glumpf.

We had to ask: what does it mean? The Scheiss bit is familiar enough, I’m sure… but Germans do so love to concatenate their words. (Remember, these are the people who brought us “Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften”: insurance companies providing legal protection.)

Thus, a Bavarian carpenter who strikes his thumb instead of a nail is able to say…

HimmiherrgottZagramentZefixHallelujaJamilextamArschScheissGlumpffaregts

You can see “Scheiss Glumpf” on the bottom row – but what does it mean?

“It’s something you say when your kid is playing with some plastic toy, and it breaks right away,” our German friend explained. “We say it’s just Scheiss Glumpf: it’s garbage.”

I see a lot of Scheiss Glumpf. My son favours quantity over quality, for sure: he’ll always choose a fleet of shoddy injection-moulded vehicles that come three or four on a card from Poundland, rather than one durable toy… but that’s to be expected, because he’s four years old.

Are we all infants? Why do we keep on buying Scheiss Glumpf?

We do, though, don’t we?

Thinking back to my childhood (and a number of toys that came from jumble sales, and were thus older still) the cars produced under the ‘Dinky Toys’ brand were ridiculously tough. US manufacturer Tonka even claimed (with a somewhat unfair test showing everything you will ever need to know about scaling laws) that their toys were tougher than the real thing:

The toys of the 1970s were so well-made that they could be handed down from child to child, in a way that was all but guaranteed to drive their manufacturer out of business. A list of the manufacturers who provided the toys of my childhood reads like a roll call of casualties in the postwar decline of British manufacturing: Palitoy, Tri-ang, Meccano, Chad Valley… all acquired by somebody else, or disappeared entirely. Not beaten by a rival who made better toys, but beaten by their inability to react to the changes wrought by the age of Scheiss Glumpf.

Nowadays, it seems the whole economy is geared towards Scheiss Glumpf: products that are flimsy, but inexpensive. We’ve grown accustomed to teeshirts that look shabby when you’ve washed them a couple of times, but you know that things have sunk to a new low when you start seeing tools that you’re expected to throw away. (Whatever happened to saw sharpening services, anyway?)

Why does anybody need two saws?

Saws used to last a lifetime. Now they’re two for £10 at B&Q. You just know they’re not going to be much good.

Is this inevitable? We shall see. But first a word on the scam that flimsy products work upon us all, eloquently explained by the late Terry Pratchett, in the character of Captain Samuel Vimes:

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money.

“Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles.

“But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while a poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.

“This was the Captain Samuel Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

– Terry Pratchett, ‘Men at Arms’

How many things do you own that were made in the last twenty years, and which you plan to pass on to your descendants? Can you think of anything that’s worth listing specifically in your will, and that you’ll still have, whether you should die tomorrow, or twenty years form now?

Jewellery, maybe. Not much else.

Patek Philippe, watchmakers, told us in a recent advertising campaign that “You never actually own a Patek Philippe: you merely look after it for the next generation.” If you can afford to spend more money on a wristwatch than most people spend on a car, perhaps you deserve a bit of durability. The rest of us make do with much cheaper substitutes… but probably enjoy a lower total cost of timepiece ownership, over a lifetime. Owning a Patek Philippe, then, is about more than telling the time. You’re buying something else.

So, we choose Scheiss Glumpf for complicated reasons – but it doesn’t just exist at the bottom of the price range. Some people who apparently have more money than sense actually pay a premium for theirs. Apple offer a gold ‘edition’ version of their wristwatch at up to £13,500… for a gadget that your descendants almost certainly won’t take delight in wearing. Being a ‘smart’ watch, it’s subject to a cycle of redevelopment and consequent obsolescence in perhaps two years. It’s guaranteed solid gold digital Scheiss Glumpf.

The holidays are a great time for the exchange of Scheiss Glumpf, whether it’s Easter with its incredibly inefficient format for the delivery of chocolate, or Christmas with all its excesses in presentation, packaging, and the entirely understandable desire to make sure your kids have the “best Christmas ever” (coupled with the low, low price that seductive Scheiss Glumpf always exhibits). But are we any happier?

At Christmas, my in-laws gave us a very generous gift. One that we’ll use for years to come, secure in the knowledge that it’ll never wear out: lifetime membership of English Heritage. I was alarmed to see just how much it cost, but it’s a brilliant gift. Free entry to over four hundred historical sites: from Stonehenge to Cold War bunkers; windmills to stately homes, and much in-between.

Even today, some things aren’t Scheiss Glumpf: choose wisely.

Stonehenge, Wiltshire.

A relic from a time when things were built to last.

A Very Peculiar Patent

I’ll be off to Malaysia for a teaching commitment tomorrow. I frequently enjoy the comfort of an Emirates A380, but boarding the aircraft is not an appealing part of the journey.

At Manchester Airport, A380s always depart from Gate 12, where the ‘holding pen’ for passengers isn’t really big enough for the superjumbo, despite the addition of a funny little overflow room. I’ve never yet seen any evidence that the good people at Manchester Airport actually know how to get everyone aboard an Airbus A380 in a timely manner, and their efforts can get a little bit frantic as the time of departure draws near.

That’s where a recent patent for Airbus (filed in February 2013 and approved in November last year) comes to the rescue. Patent US 9,193,460, catchily titled “Method for Boarding and Unloading of Passengers of an Aircraft with Reduced Immobilization Time of the Aircraft, Aircraft and Air Terminal for its Implementation”, proposes a detachable cabin module that passengers would be able to board before the inbound aircraft arrives at the gate. The outbound pod takes the place of the inbound pod and as soon as the aircraft has refuelled it’s up, up and away. Cleverly, pods may have a different configuration, such as altering the blend between economy and business class seating. 

Airbus modular aircraft

An illustration from the Airbus modular aircraft concept [US patent 9,193,460]

It’s to be hoped that the removable pod concept allows better cabin cleaning than present day efforts, too.

Higher aircraft utilisation is the best way to achieve profit. It’s one reason why low-cost airlines managed to run rings around their full-service counterparts in the 1990s, remaining profitable while charging a fraction of the ticket price. Put simply, an aircraft doesn’t earn money while it’s on the ground, so airlines are looking to minimise the turn-around time: hence the Airbus patent.

As ideas go, passenger pods aren’t really all that new. Back in March 1960, Mechanix Illustrated ran a cover story that showed a passenger module detaching from a doomed airliner, with parachutes streaming behind it. “Escape pods can prevent needless air crash death,” the article announced.

Mechanix Illustrated cover

Mechanix Illustrated cover,  March 1960

Internal arrangement of escape pods, Mechanix Illustrated

Tough luck if you were visiting the galley or the washroom at the moment of separation, by the way.

There was also the Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane (or, for the military, the CH-54 Tarhe), a helicopter that could carry a variety of cargo pods. It first flew in 1962.

S-64 Skycrane / CH-54 Tarhe

S-64 Skycrane / CH-54 Tarhe

Far from being outdone, Boeing recently came up with a monstrous freighter that could be taxied into place above a row of shipping containers, after which it would squat down into place like a hen settling on a clutch of eggs. US 9,205,910 is dated December 8th of last year.

Aircraft designed for intermodal containers in transverse orientation. [US patent 9,205,910]

Aircraft designed for intermodal containers in transverse orientation. [US patent 9,205,910]

Too bad that the most famous pod-swapping modular aircraft of them all had arrived way back in 1964, albeit only in a TV show…

Thunderbird 2

Thunderbird 2 and a selection of pods.

There really is nothing new under the Sun, is there? Well, it worked for Malcom P. McLean, back in the 1950s, when he was looking for a more efficient way to load and unload freight from ships… so why can’t the “box that changed the world” also work for air transport?

Of course, if Manchester Airport won’t invest in decent facilities to accommodate five hundred passengers in comfort while they wait to board an A380, they certainly aren’t going to invest in a special gantry that lifts tubes full of people and clips them into aircraft… which renders the Airbus thing a little bit pointless.

Airport terminal equipped with pod swapping machinery

Airport operators are going to love paying for all this extra infrastructure… [Airbus illustration from US patent 9,193,460]

Meanwhile, perhaps the neatest idea to cut turn-around times was the flip-up cinema-style aircraft seat. If fitted on the seats adjacent to the aisle, it meant that the passenger need not hold up everybody else while he or she tries to get organised before sitting down.

Those haven’t seen the light of day, either.

No way to treat an old lady

As I departed Kuala Lumpur recently, our ’plane taxied past a very forlorn looking Boeing 747. It’s abundantly clear when a ’plane is never going to fly again: grime accumulates on all the upper surfaces, while the tailfin is painted in a drab, uniform colour that conceals the branding of the aircraft’s former owner – because a ’plane at the end of its life is a poor advertisement for the airline. Often, the nacelles are left gaping after the engines have been removed, too.

That ’plane, and two others like it, are in the news this week: Malaysia Airports have taken out newspaper advertising, inviting the unknown owners to claim their aircraft within fourteen days or see them disposed of.

Malaysia Star newspaper notice

Eviction notice: substantial landing and parking fees are owed.

It’s easy to talk about the end-of-life for vehicles, appliances and the like, but it’s more complicated for aircraft. Some are parked up in deserts for years, where the dry conditions minimise corrosion. In a changeable business climate, the hope is that some will return to service later on. Others are are stripped of valuable parts (nowadays, that mostly means engines) and then broken up for scrap. Where an aircraft is stranded at an airport, though, with parking charges accumulating daily, it’s simply not possible to be sentimental: if a buyer can’t be found an excavator or two will make short work of the ‘Queen of the Skies’.

Boeing, boeing... gone in 3-4 days [image: Daily Mail]

Boeing, boeing… gone in 3-4 days [image: Daily Mail]

This is going on all the time, and the recycling rates are actually quite impressive… but the speed with which Boeing 747s are now disappearing from our airports and our skies is surprising – and the 747 isn’t just any old aeroplane. When the 747 goes, it marks the end of an era. This was the ubiquitous ’plane that became a unit of measure in its own right. (What would British journalists do if they couldn’t describe the size of things by inviting comparison with Jumbo Jets, football pitches and double-decker buses?)

For a machine that first flew in 1969 it’s had a good run, with 1,519 aircraft delivered – at a present-day list price of over $350 million a pop. Not bad for a machine that can trace its roots back to 1963, and design work done for a military project where Boeing didn’t succeed: it was the requirements of the CX-Heavy Logistics System that gave the later 747 its distinctive ‘hump’ – originally because of the need for a cavernous cargo bay on the main deck, with front loading. The contract for the military transport aircraft went to Lockheed, as the C-5 Galaxy… but some aspects of the CX-HLS design can still be seen in the DNA of the 747.

An early campaigner for the large passenger jet was Pan Am’s president, Juan Trippe. He saw large capacity aircraft as a solution to airport congestion (sound familiar?) and ordered the first twenty-five, back in 1966. Back when the 747 only existed on paper, that is – and when the company didn’t have a plant big enough to assemble it, either. The difficulties they had to overcome were staggering… but they managed it, and 747s began to carry passengers in 1970.

Forty-five years is a long time in aviation, and even with a relatively recent upgrade in the form of the 747-8, it seems that the writing is on the wall. Just two were ordered this year, and none at all the year before. Peak production occurred in 1980, with 73 aircraft delivered; peak orders were 122, in 1990. With just twenty outstanding orders, now, Boeing probably won’t be able to keep the production line open for much longer.

So what new aeroplane has stolen away the market for the 747? Actually, it’s an aeroplane that’s already twenty years old: the Boeing 777. It’s smaller than the 747, but not by much, and it incorporates two engines (with very large turbofans) instead of four. That means airlines save on fuel usage and maintenance costs, as well as paying a lower price to acquire a ’plane. I was in a 777 when we taxied past that clapped-out old 747 in Kuala Lumpur. Thus far, Boeing has delivered 1,355 of the smaller jet, and there are hundreds more on order. This is the ’plane I used to refer to frequently when teaching Concurrent Engineering, thanks to Karl Sabbagh’s book, 21st Century Jet: The Making of the Boeing 777. (Boeing called it “working together”, but it was classic Concurrent Engineering, and the result was a world-beating aeroplane.)

Formerly, when an older aeroplane was no longer wanted for use on passenger routes, it stood a good chance of putting in a few years of service as a freighter. Now, that’s by no means guaranteed. Again, the 777 is the culprit. The freighter variant of the 777 scores over the 747 for the same reasons as it does in passenger usage, but there’s also the issue of belly cargo capacity for passenger flights. A passenger airline can squeeze 202 cubic meters of freight (or luggage) into a 777-300ER, as well as carrying passengers, so that’s a valuable additional revenue stream.

By contrast, an upper deck full of passengers on a 747 (or an A380 for that matter) adds weight, but does nothing to improve the cargo capacity… and you’re still stuck with those four expensive engines.

Relative size of the 777, 747 and A380

Relative size of the Boeing 777 and 747, and the Airbus A380

A dedicated freighter benefits from larger doors and the option of flying routes and times that aren’t attractive to passengers, but there’s no opportunity of cross-subsidy: the freight must pay its way, every time. This article in Supply Chain Brain described the air-cargo freighter as an ‘endangered species’… and that means fewer freight conversions, and faster retirements for converted aeroplanes now in service. All this accelerates the process by which the 747 will become a rare bird indeed.

Even at a time when oil is crazy-cheap (Brent crude is under $40 a barrel as I write this), it seems that for most applications four-engined aircraft are out, and two-engined is the way to go. There’s only one customer I can think of who absolutely demands four engined aircraft, and that’s the U.S. Presidential Airlift Group. They recently brought their replacement process forward, to ensure that they would still be able to obtain 747s: this purchase was the source of the order for two 747s in January of this year.

The simple fact is that engines have come a long way since the 1960s, and nowadays two are plenty. ETOPS (Extended Time On Partial Systems) rulings determine what routes an aircraft can fly, taking into account distance from airports that might be diverted to in an emergency. If you’re an industry insider, you probably refer to the standard by its other name: Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim. It’s an important historical detail because of the US Civil Aviation Authority’s “60-minute rule” of 1953: that the flight path of twin-engined aircraft should not be farther than 60 minutes of flying time from an adequate airport. Thus, in the 1960s and 70s an airline wanted three- or four-engined jetliners if it was to cross oceans and the like, but this requirement is now greatly reduced.

Some 747s will still be in service for a good while yet. Some will find niche jobs such as the former Virgin Atlantic 747-400 recently announced as due for conversion into an airborne satellite launcher… but many are disappearing. Air France, once a major user of the 747 has only a single 747-based service on their schedule this winter, going between Paris and Mexico City. Passengers reports (available on SeatGuru, if you’re feeling nerdy) include failed in-flight entertainment, and a recent cancellation due to engine failure: symptoms of an aircraft approaching the end of its useful life.

Sure enough, Air France just announced that a special tribute flight on January 14th next year will mark the end of the 747 era for them. British Airways have chosen to refurbish eighteen of their Boeing 747-400s… which is a nice way to say they’re halving the size of their present-day fleet. That’s another batch of 747s for the breaker’s yard, then. Perhaps some of them will find new life, one way or another…

The 747 Wing House

American architect David Randall Hertz Turned a former Pan Am 747 into ‘The 747 Wing House’, in the Santa Monica Mountains.

 

Need affordable yet distinctive accommodation in Stockholm? Look no further than the Jumbo Stay hostel...

Need affordable yet distinctive accommodation in Stockholm? Look no further than the Jumbo Stay hostel… it’s handy for the airport, too!

 

Table featuring an upcycled turbofan

Or you could always make some furniture out of aircraft parts…

 

Lufthansa, Korean Air and Air China will continue to operate the updated 747-8s that they bought more recently, but the price of oil won’t stay low forever: not least because its current low level is preventing oil industry investment, and that hints at a future shortage.

If, presently, we see another price spike like the one that peaked in July 2008… what would you make out of an unwanted 747?