Harper’s Plastic Journalism
This article in Harper’s about the project to create the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was written by a human being who has never done anything to me. Still, I feel entitled to crap all over it.
I actually do have some expertise as a third-party observer of Boeings creation of the 787 Dreamliner. The fate of the aircraft in many ways inspired my dissertation, and I’ve followed every twist and turn since before it was given the name “Dreamliner”.
Andrew Cockburn’s thesis is that the defense-contracting side of Boeing’s business infected the commercial-aviation side and that this negatively affected “the fundamental design concepts built into this revolutionary airliner”. This is a defensible claim, but it’s one that requires extraordinary evidence, of which there is none.
Here are the ideas presented:
- Sometime after the merger with McDonnell Douglas, Henry Stonecipher (of McDonnell Douglas) was made CEO of Boeing.
Changing a culture merely by switching CEOs is difficult. Stonecipher became CEO in December of 2003 and left in March of 2005. It seems unlikely that his presence alone could have the dramatic effects claimed.
- Defense contractors use outsourcing extensively.
Mr. Cockburn suggests that outsourcing occurs to that production is distributed across multiple U.S. states so that all Senators have something to lose. Boeing’s use of outsourcing, however, is fully explained by the desire to reduce its capital investment, the desire to limit the scope of its own engineering responsibilities, the need to access technologies held by other companies, and a need to reduce production costs. These explanations are preferable not only because they are the stated reasons provided by Boeing to its shareholders under penalty of jail time, but also because they explain why a whole bunch of manufacturers other than Boeing outsource. We do not need to resort to unlikely explanations for outsourcing when obvious ones are readily available.
- Boeing embraced risky technologies.
Boeing did implement multiple novel technologies in the Dreamliner, but there is no reason to suggest that this is an artifact of the defense industry. Rather, it is an artifact of the aerospace industry. When an aerospace company creates a new platform for the next 20-40 years, it’s going to involve the use of risky technologies that need to be worked out along the way. That’s part of why only two companies are left in the segment: launching a new platform requires a company to stake its future on its ability to work out whatever they have proposed. If Boeing could have gotten away with producing 737s forever and ever, they would have. But they couldn’t, so they tried to create the Dreamliner. And that meant accepting risk.
I am not a fan of the military-industrial complex. Part of me wishes that I Cockburn’s claims were true so that I could cite this case as an example of a once-great company done in by too much entanglement with the government. But that just isn’t what happened.