A Window on the Past

I recently went to the excellent RAF Museum at Cosford, with the particular aim of seeing one rare ’plane – but not in the conventional sense.

The aircraft in question was sequestered away inside a pair of “conservation tunnels”, being sprayed with a citric acid solution for reasons of preservation. Was my journey down to Shropshire a waste of time, then? No! Admittedly I don’t usually drive 130 miles so that I can fail to see some wreckage while it’s being drizzled with dilute lemon juice, but this was special.

My interest was in a virtual representation of the aircraft, and after an extensive search (caused by human error[1]) I found two of them hovering a few metres above the tarmac in the overflow carpark.

Apparition Dornier screenshot.

Found at last: the Dornier 17, in a car park. The scale is a bit off, apparently.

Apparition Dornier 17, seen in a car park at Cosford.

Quite a convincing takeoff… except that the propellors aren’t spinning.

Apparition Dornier 17 is a free iPhone app, described as “A virtual window into the past, using augmented reality and location based media to recreate aircraft and their stories for the world to see and experience.” Promotional hyperbole aside, what it means is that if you’re in the right location and you waft your telephone around, a ‘live’ 3D model of said Dornier 17 is superimposed upon the feed from your camera. Walk around the location and you get to see the model from various angles. The app was developed by the Middlesex University Design and Innovation Centre and sponsored by Wagaming.net – the people behind ‘World of Tanks’ and other computer games.

I wanted to see how well the technology worked, but the aircraft itself is an interesting one as well. The Dornier Do 17 was a light bomber, used mainly by the Nazis. More than two thousand were built but not a single one survives intact today.

And the one in the tent, marinated in citric acid? In September 2008, the wreckage of a Do 17 was located on the Goodwin Sands, six kilometres off the coast of Kent. It had been on the seabed since August 26th 1940 when the aircraft took part in a raid against RAF stations in southern England. It was damaged by defending fighters and forced to ditch in the sea.

Due to the threat posed by thieving scuba-souvenir hunters, the find was kept a secret until arrangements could be made to recover it. In 2013 it was raised from the seabed and delivered to the restoration centre at Cosford – where the aforementioned citric acid solution is being used to wash away the salts and barnacles that have encrusted the wreck.

Dornier 17 being raised from the seabed near Goodwin Sands

The last of her kind… and somewhat the worse for wear after being shot up and then left in seawater for decades.

A very long period of conservation work may lie ahead, but in the meantime we can see the machine in virtual form… although not from the comfort of your armchair. You still have to get out and visit a location. I doubt this is because the RAF Museum is particularly desperate to drum up business: not least because admission is free. What’s more, you can see virtual Dorniers in dozens of other locations around the world…but you do have to get out and find them.

Selected Apparition Dornier locations

Some of the Apparition Dornier locations (image: Google Maps)

Is this the Pokémon Go of history? Fitbit for sedentary aviation enthusiasts? Well… kind of. I’m quite taken with this synthesis of technologies. It introduces an apparent limitation in that the virtual world doesn’t exist purely for our convenience and we have to get out and navigate physical space if we want to enjoy it, but that’s actually evidence of a very clever system. If you can look through a “virtual window” and see a Dornier 17 in the distance, you might be able to use the same technology to answer the perennial question of supply chains:

Where’s my stuff?

Imagine using your phone not to dial up a call centre and listen to muzak while you wait for the chance to gripe about the non-appearance of your latest purchase, but to actually see where it is in real time, your magic vision reaching beyond the horizon. To know that your package isn’t merely ‘out for delivery’ but that it’s no longer stuck in that eight-mile tailback on the M62, and is now speeding towards your location… wouldn’t that be something? Or how about arriving at your local ‘click and collect’ store and not having to wait while a member of staff sorts through a pile of boxes that looks like that scene at the end of ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’? If, instead, you could peer through your own “virtual window” and see exactly which boxes are yours – and perhaps receive additional information such as a video on safe handling for heavy boxes.

Apparition Dornier conservation project video.

Apparition Dornier shows a video about the conservation project, if you choose to look in the right direction: the two tents in the background aren’t open to the public, but the app gives me magic vision, allowing me to see inside.

My ancient iPhone 5 worked perfectly well for this, which suggests that all but about four percent of smartphone owners could have a “virtual window” of this kind, if they wanted. The model I saw was a bit clunky: up close the surface could be seen to be pixellated, and perhaps it could have been rendered to match the real lighting conditions, for additional realism… but this is a product of electronics and information technology, and it’s a few years old now: if my life has taught me anything, it’s that we can expect something a lot better to come along within a few years.

Dornier landing gear closeup

Having a close look at the landing gear. Could an augmented reality app one day help an engineer to perform maintenance tasks?

What else might we do with the technology? All kinds of things. A company could offer a permanent ‘virtual open day’ to anybody who stopped by the front gate, telling the community about all the good things they’re doing. A walking tour of the city walls of London could be made much more interesting if you could actually see them, instead of merely being told where they once stood. Perhaps an artist’s installation no longer needs no to be constrained by mundane limits such as planning permission, budget, or gravity: come and see the Colossus of Rotherham… and so on.

The window on the past is surprisingly futuristic, then. In fact, I think the world just acquired an extra dimension.


[1] You need to allow the Apparition app to have certain permissions on your phone, including access to your current location, or your “virtual window” won’t show you anything.


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?

A Farewell Tour

This weekend, all over the nation, crowds of people are to be found, gathering to look up in the hope of seeing a very special aircraft. G-VLCN (formerly XH558) is the last of her kind, and in the very near future she will be grounded for good.

I was in Brough, a town dominated by the aerospace industry. They didn’t build the Vulcan there: that was Woodford, near Stockport. Nonetheless, XH558 treated us to a graceful lap of honour before heading off to the west.

Vulcan XH558 in flight

With the Vulcan retired, there are probably going to be far fewer UFO sightings…

XH558 is a warbird that never went to war. None of the 134 Avro Vulcans that were built were ever required to perform in their designated role, and for this we have to be grateful as the mission would have been to launch nuclear weapons in a third world war. Only two Vulcans ever went into battle – and that was in a particularly unusual capacity.

While the aircraft now known as G-VLCN wasn’t called upon to serve, its chief pilot was: it was Martin Withers (then a Flight Lieutenant) who led the attack on Port Stanley Airport, cratering the runway in the opening phase of the British operation to retake the Falkland Islands.

Those of us who study logistics and the supply chain can’t fail to be impressed by the challenges that were overcome on the night of 30 April/1 May 1982. A bombing raid involving a round trip of almost 6,800 nautical miles (12,600km) should have been impossible – even unthinkable – but it was made possible with the aid of another Cold War bomber that never bombed. The remaining Handley Page Victors had been converted to an aerial refuelling role, but they retained their own in-flight refuelling probe, which meant that they could (of course) dispense fuel, but also receive it. This permitted some indecently long flights to be conducted, operating from RAF Ascension Island.

The refuelling scheme for getting a Vulcan bomber all the way from Ascension to Port Stanley and back is something that a civilian like me can barely comprehend. You’ve likely seen footage of the aerial ballet that is in-flight refuelling: now imagine that it’s being done in the dark, in a South Atlantic thunderstorm, in radio silence, thousands of kilometres from friendly territory. A mission to get a single bomber into the vicinity of the Falkland Islands demanded eleven tanker aircraft. The refuelling plan diagram reminds me of how a troupe of acrobats form a human pyramid: the one on the top depends upon all the others… but a key difference here is that you have to construct another pyramid to safely retrieve the principal and complete the performance. You have to refuel the inbound tanker aircraft, too, for a total of eighteen air-to-air fuel transfers. Words like ‘audacious’ just don’t do it justice: it was the longest bombing raid in history. (The Americans flew further on a raid against Iraq in 1991, but the tanker aircraft were based in friendly territory along the route, so I’m not sure that qualifies…)

Although a Vulcan bomber had a fuel capacity of 41,823 litres, the overall mission consumed perhaps 623,000 litres of jet fuel in total. In a very real sense, the remarkable thing wasn’t causing a string of holes to appear suddenly in a British overseas territory, but simply being able to organise and conduct an operation of such complexity: to get the required quantity of fuel into play at such a distance from base.

Another astounding thing about the Port Stanley raids was the adaptability shown by the Royal Air Force. The Vulcans were retrofitted with an inertial guidance system that was taken from the Super VC10, making flight over the trackless ocean possible. Dash 10 electronic countermeasures pods were taken from Buccaneer carrier-borne attack aircraft, and fitted on an improvised underwing pylon, while still more pylons were added in order to carry the AGM-45 Shrike missile for later attacks on radar installations. They also added a sixth crewman (a refuelling specialist) and a chemical toilet, exceeding their maximum take-off weight in the process. Politicians may well wonder why it is that equipping the armed forces with a new system takes years and inevitably goes over-budget, while in wartime the same people manage to work miracles. This disparity between the needs and expectations of the two parties is something that I continue to study, and hope to understand someday!

The military refer to this kind of operation as ‘force projection’, and with good reason. After Flight Lieutenant Martin Withers and his crew showed that the British were serious about retaking the Falklands, and with the naval task force on its way, the outcome was never really in doubt. With the runway damaged at its midpoint, options for stationing fast jets on the islands declined, and the Argentine leadership had to wonder if the next target might be an airbase in their own territory.

The Vulcan to the Sky Trust gave XH558 the name Spirit of Great Britain in 2010, but many fans affectionately refer to her as the Tin Triangle. It’s hard to believe that the type first flew on August 30th 1952. Little more than a decade separates the Vulcan from the famous Avro Lancaster of the Second World War, yet when you compare the two, one is a crate suitable for ‘Biggles’, while the other looks like a ride for ‘Dan Dare’.

Lancaster and Vulcan in flight

Little more than a decade separates the first flights of these two Avro aircraft

How can something be more than half a century old, and all used up, and still look futuristic?

White Suit Economics

I recently found myself watching The Man in the White Suit, a classic Ealing comedy from 1951. It’s the story of Sidney Stratton, research chemist, who pursues the invention of a synthetic fibre that is virtually indestructible.

Film poster for The Man in the White Suit, 1951

Alec Guinness was never that fresh-faced, was he?

The film is an interesting snapshot of its time, from back when The North was probably a mysterious place to many cinemagoers; one of flat caps and funny accents. It’s from a time when it seemed that mastery over the atom would unlock all kinds of potential, but when the UK still made textiles in a big way – in somewhat grim, labour-intensive mills owned by cigar-smoking industrialists, apparently.

It also seems to have been a time when you could lose your job, and simply bob down to the Labour Exchange to secure another. Strange times indeed!

In order to prove his theory, the central character has to conduct his research in secret, the cost of his equipment and materials being hidden from a succession of employers by sheer bureaucracy. Even so, Stratton goes through a number of jobs in the textile industry before he finally manages to produce the miracle material. When he does, he’s surprised to discover that nobody wants his breakthrough to have occurred. Industrialists and trade unions alike conclude that it spells the end for them, with one last boom while they manufacture everybody some clothes in the new fibre, after which they can look forward to nothing but the closure of all their factories.

Trouble at t’ mill: Stratton shows off his new apparel to the Works Committee

Trouble at t’ mill: Stratton shows off his new apparel to the Works Committee

With hindsight, we can see that the disaster they sought to avert wasn’t all that far off anyway. Despite being the nation that invented the textile industry, the decline was already well established and the UK would become a net importer of cotton cloth by 1958, something that the Cotton Industry Act of 1959 wouldn’t reverse.

The ‘big joke’ of the film is that both the fat cats and the trade unions collude as they seek the same thing. They want the invention suppressed so that things can stay as they were, and this leaves the naïve Sidney Stratton with few allies. Even his landlady is offended by the dabbling of scientists. “What about my bit o’ washin’?” she asks: Stratton’s fibre has a static charge that causes it to repel dirt, so it threatens to destroy service-based activities such as laundry as well as manufacturing.

Alec Guinness, detained by his employer, and cronies

The ‘Fat Cats’ are no happier than the trade unionists…

This, of course, cannot be allowed, and so Sidney Stratton is pursued through the town by a mob… until it turns out that the fibre he has invented is unstable. As the mob closes in, the distinctive white suit spontaneously degrades, the previously indestructible fabric turning into woolly clumps that are taken as souvenirs by the mob. Left in his underwear, Stratton is given an overcoat by one of his pursue, and all is well. (Although in the final scene, it is implied that the newly-discharged scientist will try again.)

Conspicuously missing from The Man in the White Suit is the question of fashion. The idea that an everlasting set of clothes spells the death of the textile industry is flawed because it assumes nobody will ever want a different look. Perhaps in 1951, under postwar austerity, this was a somewhat easier issue to forget… but don’t the economics of the film also assume that people never change shape? Perhaps that’s the same austerity is at work: rationing didn’t completely end until 1954…

In real-world manufacturing, industries face problems every bit as challenging as those portrayed in The Man in the White Suit. That products should have a reputation for quality and reliability, yet still allow an ongoing revenue stream; that products should be as clever and as useful as we can possibly devise and yet still be made better the following year, and again the year after that. ‘Green’ issues only make the problem more complex, by introducing a new set of goals and constraints, but despite all this some industries have responded to these constraints with offerings that work a lot like the fictional White Suit.

Maybe I’m just too keen to make a fast buck, but I actually see a market for a temporarily indestructible product that subsequently degrades. In a sense, it’s the perfect product: something that’s guaranteed a world-beater in terms of durability, but that obediently destroys itself after a known amount of time, such that you can sell the customer another one. If the manufacturing process is affordable enough, a short (but predictable) lifespan might be a good thing.

Imagine if you could make an aero engine that was deliberately designed to have a fixed useful life. Present-day engines are built to last for decades, with occasional overhauls during which expensive spares are fitted, but what if we could dispense with all that faffing about and offer airlines an engine that was guaranteed faultless for twenty thousand flying hours? Once the service life is reached, this hypothetical engine is fit only for the scrapyard.

Is that bad? Well, not entirely. A ‘disposable’ engine ought to be cheaper to make – and you’re going to be taking a conventional engine off the wing for servicing anyway, so switching out the disposable one doesn’t complicate the business of running an airline overmuch. It also offers predictable costs and therefore simpler management. An airline isn’t necessarily interested in engine maintenance, repair and overhaul. They might do it, but it’s not a core competency.

A ‘disposable’ engine might be lighter, and because it’s being replaced outright every six or seven years, it offers a handy way to upgrade if engine technology improves over time. Basically, it’s an intriguing idea… if such an engine could be designed. The White Suit of the aero engine world; always as good as new, until a known point is reached when the whole engine is irrefutably unfit to fly. Some of the work I did on the EU-funded VIVACE project investigated a hypothetical ‘disposable’ engine as one possible future scenario, and we selected it as being worthy of investigation by looking at what has already happened in other, faster-evolving industries where White Suits aren’t all that uncommon.

I recall a Ford that I once owned; it gave me basic but virtually trouble-free motoring until it reached a hundred thousand miles, when suddenly everything seemed to go wrong at once. I gave (yes, gave) it to a scrap yard before it reached 101,000 recorded miles. Although it was inconvenient at the time, I have to admit a grudging admiration for the skill with which the product was designed, to all but self-destruct when its time came. In a sense, this kind of engineering is the holy grail of consumerism. A product that visibly degrades would put out a kind of negative advertising for the brand, but mine was a car that nobody could complain was unreliable, and it didn’t rust or rattle or smoke badly… until the self-destruct phase, when it was time to go and buy a new car.

Consider what’s happened in music retail. If you sold music in 1951, this was almost certainly done in the form of gramaphone records; fragile, grooved discs that allowed customers to hear their favourite songs at home. Whether made from shellac (an insect-derived resin from the forests of India and Thailand) or the exciting new vinyl (invented in 1949) the discs attracted dust, they scratched readily, and (because the record player’s needle must be physically in contact with the medium) they degraded a little bit each time they were played: they were perfect for repeat business potential! Then along came the compact disc (and then the digital download) and music stopped degrading. It’s also put an end to format-hopping: I’d sometimes bought the same album as a record and later as a compact disc, but there will be no more repeat purchases of favourite tunes now that they have become nothing but information. They have become another White Suit.

The device on which the customer plays music has improved in durability as well. Where a 1951 phonograph would have been an expensive, temperamental assembly of mechanical parts and early electronic devices such as valves, the 21st century music player has virtually no moving parts at all. An iPod has a grand total of four buttons on it… and that’s about it. Everything else is solid state, sealed for life… and although you can destroy an iPod if you bash it hard enough, it doesn’t really wear. There’s an issue with rechargeable batteries degrading over time and eventually becoming useless, but this again matches Sidney Stratton’s miracle fibre; the gadget essentially remains good as new for a period of time, and then it stops working. (And manufacturers hope that fashion, or a succession of new features, will be enough to cause you to take the plunge and buy yourself something new in the meantime.)

iPod touch

Audacious simplification: there are more moving parts on a trumpet, quite frankly.

We might take issue with software upgrades that degrade the user experience for those with older gadgets, but again, this is White Suit economics at work: the manufacturer supports a product to the best of their ability for a while – patching security flaws that are identified, for example – keeping the product working well. Then, after a time, they force you to upgrade, either by discontinuing their technical support or by ‘improving’ their software to the point where older gadgets can’t run it. At which point, ouch: you got White Suited. There is even the possibility of manufacturers designing in a ‘kill switch’ such that they control the life of a product directly. Here’s a link to a story about Epson printers coming equipped with exactly that, courtesy of the Restart Project, and the citizens who are fighting back.

Epson Stylus D68: kill switch included as standard

Boo, Epson: just… boo!

Hundred-year Storms

In strategic planning, we don’t believe in making ourselves proof against every possible outcome. Risk reduction is all very well, but you can’t eliminate all possible risk – or at least, not in any kind of economically sensible manner. There will always be some things that it’s impossible to anticipate, or guard against.

Flood defence is a good thing in that it’s only sensible to mitigate against the risk that a river bursts its banks after a long period of heavy rainfall… but it would be almost impossible to fortify a riverbank against any conceivable quantity of water. At some point, the cost of defence exceeds the cost of occasional damage. In Paris, in 1910, the Seine flooded to something like eight meters above its normal level. While it’s possible for civic engineers to defend against a reasonable amount of floodwater, there was nothing to be done in the face of such a deluge, except to evacuate people and accommodate them elsewhere. The metro system was impassable, and the roads were impassable, except by boat. Roads in those days were surfaced with wooden blocks and these simply floated away: long after the waters receded, travel within the city remained difficult. Basically, it was chaos… but nobody was particularly to blame, because this was what we call a hundred-year storm: an event of such severity that preventing damage simply wouldn’t be practical. Instead, you take the hit, and rebuild when you can.

Flooded Paris streets

Flooded Paris streets

Flooded Paris metro

Flooded Paris metro

Trouble is, though, in some industries we’ve become very sloppy when talking about these “hundred-year storms”. Let’s consider the aviation industry…

In 1979, there was the Energy Crisis, as the aftermath of the Iranian revolution led to decreased oil output and a corresponding spike in the price of oil; a situation that only worsened with the commencement of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980.

Not something anybody could have predicted: a hundred-year storm. Just like the Oil Crisis of 1973 that all but destroyed the prospects for Concorde, the Anglo-French supersonic airliner. With fuel prices heading through the roof, no airline placed an order for a supersonic passenger jet, except the flag carriers of the two nations behind the project who were obliged to take it: British Airways and Air France each took on seven of the magnificent, loss-making machines.

In 1986 came the Chernobyl disaster. Nuclear power doesn’t have a great deal to do with air travel… but it produced a noticeable dent in the number of passengers carried, according to the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe (ACARE), as the figure below shows:

Number of passengers carried per year

Number of passengers carried per year [ACARE, 2004]

Then comes more trouble in the Middle East, with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and the first Gulf War. Another dent in the amount of business being done by the airlines. Once that’s out of the way, there’s the 1997 Asian Crisis, a financial meltdown that affected South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and elsewhere.

The terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 caused another dip and soon after, in 2003, comes SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) which spread from Hong Kong, soon affecting people in 37 countries – with air travel as a factor in its rapid spread. Then in 2008 you’ve got the ‘Credit Crunch’ impacting upon the amount of business travel being undertaken, and pretty soon citizens who are concerned about their job prospects become reluctant to book holidays…

We might call them hundred-year storms, but I count something like eight major, hard-to-predict events in a half century… not including the ‘small’ events that only affect a single airline, like the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, which damaged passenger confidence enough to bring down the airline, eventually. It remains to be seen whether Malaysia Airlines’ recent woes with MH370 and MH17 will have a similar outcome.

It’s possible to worry too much about very rare events – genuine hundred-year storms – but it’s clear that this is an industry where the unpredictable can never be allowed to become the unthinkable: where major disruption occurs not once every hundred years, but several times every decade. It’s an industry that depends upon aircraft and engines that are ordered years in advance, where systems require many years of development.

Give me the hundred-year storm anytime: it’s got to be easier than business as usual in the aerospace industry.


ACARE (2004) Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe, Strategic Research Agenda, Volume 2 [available online]

Design for Assembly… and Harmony?

I recently uploaded a presentation on the subject of Design for Assembly to Slideshare; stuff from my ‘old life’ in an engineering department. As I looked over all the guidelines and generally tidied things up (I like the teaching material I put on Slideshare to look pretty) I thought about the modern reality of globalised supply networks, and I wondered: whatever happened to Concurrent Engineering?

Back in the 1990s it was a hot topic. Even in the mid-2000s, I used to teach Concurrent Engineering to a hundred students, some years… but somehow ‘Design for X’ just isn’t being talked about anymore. (The elusive ‘X’ was whatever you wanted it to be; some aspect of the later life of the product that you wanted the designer to consider, while changes were still affordable.)

Lucas Methodology: identifying parts as essential or non-essential

Design for Assembly principles [Lucas, 1991]. This is often just common sense… which is surprisingly uncommon.

The alternative to designing with subsequent operations in mind, we called “over the wall syndrome”, the idea being that the designer would produce something that ought to function, and that was that: job done. The guys who actually had to build it, install and service it, well… that was their problem, in the far-off and only vaguely understood context of things that mattered on the other side of the wall.

Sometime around 2003, we decided that one of the ‘X’s we wanted to consider was Design for the Environment: a lecture on that topic was produced and this set in train much of what was to follow, in terms of my work in eco-efficient manufacturing… but as ‘green’ issues became the new hot topic (and something much more likely to attract a research grant), whatever happened to the idea of considering the whole range of downstream issues concurrently, in design?

In an ideal world, the answer would be that this had become so automatic, so fundamentally a part of the designer’s common sense that it didn’t need to be researched and written about as a separate topic anymore. In an equally utopian vision, design tools had become so advanced that it was possible to consider heat, vibration and mechanical loads in the same software tool where you were designing your hydraulics and electrics; keeping track of ergonomic issues, budgets and so on…


In Karl Sabbagh’s book ‘21st Century Jet: the making of the Boeing 777’ [Sabbagh, 1996] he describes the success of Boeing’s last major civil aerospace project of the 20th century. (They called it “Working Together”, but it’s classic Concurrent Engineering. This wasn’t just a software solution: it was notable for early customer involvement in an industry where, historically, airlines had to wait and see what the manufacturer came up with.) Sabbagh describes how developing an aircraft used to be simple enough because “the entire Design Department was within fifty feet of each other.” For the thousands of engineers involved in the design of the 777 this was no longer possible, but through Working Together Boeing managed to get the world’s largest twinjet to market.

Boeing 777

Boeing 777

Then came the 787, or ‘Dreamliner’… a project that was even more ambitious – not only because it was to be the first major airliner to have an airframe primarily constructed from composite materials, but because so many of its components would be sourced globally. Production of the 777 had included significant international content (most notably from Japan) but this was taken to a new level with the Dreamliner.

Wings from Japan, courtesy of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, although the wingtips and certain other parts would come from Korean Air. Landing gear from the Anglo-French Messier-Bugatti-Dowty. Passenger doors supplied by Latécoère, Franne, with other doors by Saab AB, Sweden. Software developed by HCL Enterprise in India. Assorted fuselage sections from Global Aeronautica of Italy, Kawasaki Heavy Industries of Japan, and Boeing themselves… and so on, and so on.

You know what they say: a camel is a horse designed by committee. Considering the difficulty of developing an all-new product, farming its manufacture out all over the world and getting it all to fit together and operate as intended, Boeing did an astounding job. The ’plane itself isn’t a camel… but perhaps its supply chain was. (Gates [2010] gives us a good picture of the difficulties that the 787 caused Boeing as a whole.)

In September 2007 came news of a three-month delay, with an additional three-month delay to the first flight announced the following month – and a six-month delay to first deliveries. These were mainly due to “supply chain problems”. Further delays would follow, although they wouldn’t trouble Mike Bair, 787 Program Manager, as he’d been replaced.

I’m wondering if increasingly outsourced and international supply networks give rise to a new and particularly ugly version of “over the wall syndrome”, which I’ll call “over the ocean syndrome”. The original problem was that designers didn’t understand how difficult it might be to produce a part of a given geometry, or how difficult it might be to assemble, etc. That’s much more of an issue for a complex supply network: the designer might not be told what the yields or limits of a high-tech process are because that’s proprietary information. Equally, the subcontracted manufacturer might not feel that they are able to gripe about the specification for a part, because any suggestion that it will be ‘hard to make’ might be a deal-breaker. In a world of take-it-or-leave-it contracts worth billions where business is awarded on a “build to print” basis, who innovates?

For a couple of decades, now, the big innovation for a lot of companies has been to tap into the possibilities of manufacture in a low-cost nation; preferably one that comes with huge tax breaks. That’s all very well, but it’s got to put a strain on the engineering process. Instead of having key staff within fifty feet, you’re lucky if they’re in the same time zone – and culturally, they’re worlds apart as well.

The low-cost angle is a mighty big compensation, but it’s a shame to squander so much of the benefit on acrimonious relationships arising as a result of questionable designs for components that are needlessly difficult to make.

Where Design for Manufacture looks at a component with a view to how long it takes to produce, a Design for Supply Chain view would have to factor in such complexities as the other things that we ask of the same supplier, their other commitments, and the best way to make use of their knowledge – not just their capacity. Or we can ignore this latest aspect of Design for ‘X’ and just go on hoping that our designers are really good, despite the fact that they haven’t necessarily had a chance to actually see the manufacturing processes that result from their design decisions.

Now, in a discussion of acrimonious business relationships, I’d be missing the big story if I didn’t mention Apple and GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT). GTAT were going to take Apple’s iPhones to the next level of durability, using artificial sapphire to make scratch-resistant screens… only it didn’t happen: it appears that the company failed to meet a contractual milestone, and they lost the Apple contract. Apple went with plain old ‘Gorilla Glass’ for the iPhone 6, and GTAT filed for bankruptcy protection. Then the stories about their dealings started coming out. Journalist Kif Leswing [2014] describes the situation thus:

“Apple did not ever really enter into negotiations, warning that GTAT’s managers should ‘not waste their time’ negotiating because Apple does not negotiate with its suppliers. According to GTAT, after the company balked, Apple told GTAT that its terms are standard for other Apple suppliers and that GTAT should ‘put on your big boy pants and accept the agreement.’”

– Leswing [2014]

In the eyes of GTAT’s Chief Operating Officer Daniel Squiller, Apple’s tactics were “a classic bait-and-switch … onerous and massively one-sided.” The result, inevitably, is that a company with some genuinely interesting patents can’t exploit them, a newly-built facility in Arizona stands idle… and we still have mobile ’phones that scratch far too easily. Everybody loses.

Now, I have another reason for mentioning Apple. Slideshare’s recent analytics feature lets authors see exactly where their viewers come from. That’s always nice to know, but one of the first to view my Design for Assembly presentation stood out. It was reported as:

Location: Cupertino, United States
Organization/ISP: Apple

Does that mean that my presentation might, in some small way, have influenced a person at Apple? Might some future Apple gadget be easier to assemble, because of something I wrote? Even if you reason that assembly will be performed on the cheap by Foxconn or Pegatron in China so it doesn’t matter if it’s a horrendously difficult job, the same rules that govern ease of assembly might be applied to some aspects of ease of use. Is it too much to hope that some future Apple desktop computer will have the SD card reader slot where you can use it, rather than hidden away at the back where you can never find it? Restricted vision scores a penalty of 1.5 in the Lucas [1991] Design for Assembly Methodology…

Apple Mac Mini: rear view

And the award for stupid card reader placement goes to…

Yes: it’s probably too much to hope. But it’s always nice to have visitors.



Gates, D. (2010) Albaugh: Boeing’s ‘first preference’ is to build planes in Puget Sound region, Seattle Times, March 1st 2010 (available online)

Leswing, K. (2014) Apple to sapphire supplier: “Put on your big boy pants and accept the agreement”, Gigaom News, November 7th 2014 (available online)

Lucas (1991) Mini-Guide: The Lucas Manufacturing Systems Handbook, Solihull: Lucas Engineering & Systems Ltd

Sabbagh, K. (1996) 21st Century Jet: the making of the Boeing 777, London: Macmillan Publishers (see also, the movie of the same… part 1 here)