Michael Crichton’s Airframe is set on the backdrop of an aerospace manufacturing company, Norton Aircraft. The book opens with an accident on TransPacific Airlines flight 545, a Norton N-22 passenger plane manufactured in part by the company. The accident occurs above American Airspace, forcing the Aircraft (en route from Hong Kong to Denver) to make an unscheduled landing, after the accident which is described by the pilot as “severe turbulence”, leaves four dead and fifty-six passengers injured. The incident in question is based on a similar 1993 accident aboard a McDonnell-Douglas MD-11, also a widebody aircraft, like the N-22.
The rest of the plot is seen largely from the perspective of a Norton employee, Casey Singleton, who attempts to unravel the cause of the in-flight incident. The plot takes place largely in the Norton office, at Glandale, California, in 1996. Casey Singleton is a 36-year-old vice-president for quality assurance at Norton Aircraft. Her job profile is defined by her identity badge - QA/IRT - which stands for Quality Assurance representative on the Incident Review Team. The investigation and its urgency are set on the backdrop of an impending deal with the Chinese regarding sales of the N-22 plane – an $8 billion deal for the possible sale of 50 N-22s which could make or break the company. Other parts of the plot include a media investigation by the crew of Newsline (the American equivalent of Channel Seven expose), problems with the local blue-collar unions who believe that their jobs will be exported overseas and intense office politics.
The accident is soon discovered to have occurred most probably because of an “uncommanded slats deployment”. Wing slats are retractable parts that extend during take-off and landing, increasing the lift and stability of the airplane by augmenting the wing. During cruise speed, is the slats are extended, the plane may lose stability momentarily, though the autopilot would typically correct this immediately, and sensors would warn the pilot of the uncommanded deployment.
The possible causes attributed to the accident include cockpit design flaw, pilot error, mechanical glitch, and fake sub-components found on the plane. The actual cause of the accident as discovered by Casey Singleton is (as is typical of Aircraft accidents) not attributable to any singular cause but to a series of unforeseen circumstances, which to describe here serves little purpose as it is not pertinent to the Operations Management analysis of the book, and would only serve to be a ‘spoiler’ robbing the potential reader’s pleasure of one of Crichton’s masterpieces.
As the author
“Airframe is based on a true story-actually, several true stories.
of course, a number of famous episodes of deadly turbulence, as well as
instances in which pilots have allowed other people to fly the plane. I
the National Transport Safety Board reports on these real incidents as
basis of the story.
MD-11 (Passenger carrier)
Passengers - (1 class) 410)
Max. takeoff weight 602,555 lb (273,314 kg)
Max range 6,821 nm (12,633 km)
Max cruising speed 945 km/h (510 kt)
Length 61.21 m (200 ft 10 in)
Wingspan 51.66 m (169 ft 6 in)
Tail height 17.60 m (57 ft 9 in)
(Nt – Details not available on the book have been based on the aircraft specs of the McDonnell Douglas MD-11, the aircraft on which, by the author’s admission, the book is based)
The typical commercial aircraft is described as the most complex manufactured product in the world. With over one million parts, it is manufactured on an assembly line and could be made-to-order or in some cases even made-to-stock.
The assembly line details are as under –
Time-to-manufacture – 75 days
Man-hours required – 480,000
(2 shifts X 8 hours per shift X avg. workers per
X 75 days / 10 stations)
Operating life – 20 years
Average use-per year – 5000 hours
Total operating life (in hours) – 100,000 hours
(20 X 5000)
Over the last two years, the moving line technology (originally conceived by Henry Ford and used in the manufacture of the Model t as early as 1913), or at least an adaptation of it, has been deemed to be the future of aircraft manufacture. While this is still in the preliminary stages and is being used on select basis by manufacturers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin, it has considerable implications for aircraft manufacturers. The first-ever continuous moving assembly line for producing fighter jets was initiated by engineers at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in the production of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in January 2004. Boeing has been using the moving line to produce 747s since 2001.
technology seems to
be the future of aircraft manufacture in as much as it promises to
production efficiency, reduce floor space and reduce costs
the same time, it also optimises production flow and processes, and
flow time. Boeing has reduced flow time from 24 to 18 days on the 747.
Accidents rarely result from a single cause but typically from a combination of unforeseen events such as a technical glitch which a flight crew member responds to incorrectly. As in the book, this makes prevention seemingly difficult as one would have to predict innumerable combinations of event sequences which could possibly cause accidents, and the element of human error is volatile as it depends largely on psychological rather than predictable empirical evidence. However, this also gives the manufacturer multiple opportunities to prevent them. By removing any of the possible events in the sequence, the link in the chain can be broken and the accident avoided.
Thus the analysis of incidents in airplanes becomes imperative from the point-of-view of preventing future occurrences of similar nature. The "intervention strategies" for include new training aids for flight crews and mechanics, new operating procedures, infrastructure improvements, aircraft design modifications, and incorporation of new technologies into the aviation system.
A typical Aircraft accident precedes the following characteristics steps –
1. If near the airport, the airport operator handles organizes for the fire-fighting, rescue operations and arranges for medical facilities.
2. If distant from the airport, the above functions are handled by local authorities, who have the additional responsibility of ‘search and rescue’ and the securing and protection of important evidence.
3. The media covers aircraft incidents extensively, and their underlying causes.
4. The airplane manufacturer and engine manufacturer will be involved in the accident investigation, if called upon by the airline or regulatory agency leading the investigation.
5. Government authorities like the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Authority in the United States are immediately notified and initiate their own operations and investigations. The NTSB team (or its foreign equivalent) consists of one of the five members of the board plus staff specialists in air traffic control, aircraft maintenance, aircraft operations, aircraft systems and other disciplines useful to determining an accident's cause. In the U.S., the aircraft and engine manufacturers, the pilot and controller unions, and the government regulatory agency with jurisdiction over the accident site - also participate in the investigation. The government authorities lead the investigation, oversee all testing and analysis of wreckage, and are solely responsible for determining the probable cause.
In India, the Civil Aviation Authority is the equivalent of the American Federal Aviation Authority. Investigation of aircraft accidents follow a similar procedure, with the roles being largely the same, but conducted by a different set of authorities, under the Aircrafts Rules, 1937.
The Director General may order the investigation of any accident involving an aircraft and may appoint any person (generally referred to as an "Inspector of Accidents") or a committee of inquiry for the purpose of carrying out such investigation. An analysis of the reports published by the CAA reveals that while the investigation is usually detailed, the report is perfunctory, consisting of flight details and a short summary listing the contributory factors to the accident, more often than not written simply as “Pilot – Aircraft Handling”.
The investigation typically makes use of the services of the National Aerospace Laboratories (India's premier civil R& D establishment in aeronautics and allied disciplines. NAL has a Failure Analysis Group which has been investigating failures for about 30 years. The group’s clients typically include India's Director-General of Civil Aviation, Indian Air Force and Navy, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), establishments of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and India's Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Courts of Enquiry, India's Central Bureau of investigation (CBI) and a large number of industries in the private and the public sector.
“The FAA required commercial carriers to keep extraordinarily detailed maintenance records. Every time a part was changed out, it was noted in a maintenance log. In addition, the manufacturers, though not required to, maintained an exhaustive ship's record of every part originally on the plane, and who had manufactured it. All this paperwork meant that every one of the aircraft's one million parts could be traced back to its origin. If a part was swapped out and repaired, that was known. Each part on a plane had a history of its own. Given enough time, they could find out where this part had come from, who had installed it, and when.”
Remanufacturing consists of repair or refurbishment of worn parts and products. Typical assemblies are disassembled and worn parts removed for repair or scrap. Remanufacturing involves operations of a specialist nature which are carried out in finite capacity job shop environments. The job shop environment is most suitable to this type of production, as customer requirements and types vary significantly, and volumes are typically low.
The operations rule that these shops follow are typically based on the critical-ratio rule, with jobs getting higher priority the closer they are to the date of completion. Bottlenecks occur when a particular process resource is made intensive use of in multiple orders, or the demands are beyond capacity. Attempts to reach a negative critical ratio are avoided with the use of Enterprise Resource Planning software (such as SAP AG’s R/3Ò).
The components have varying recovery rates and lead teams to manufacture, and as such need to be made-to-stock as the requirements are unknown and non-deterministic. The word used in scholarly reports is ‘stochastic’, and as such is quite different, implying the possibility of using artificial intelligence stimulators to predict possible requirements based on probability theory. This makes the strategies used typically by these firms complicated and not entirely accurate, and is typically a trade-off between response time and inventory cost. Inventory costs are high as buffer stocks need to be maintained due to the unpredictability nature of the requirements. However, it has been estimated that ‘remanufacturing operations with good scheduling and control systems can achieve inventory cost savings of over 40 per cent compared to less efficient competitors’ (‘Aircraft Materials Remanufacturing System Simulation Model’ by Peter Johnson, Don Kulasiri, Richard Sedcole). The literature available on operations planning for remanufacturing is however, limited, as research is conducted on a private basis, such as by Pratt and Whitney ( who use ‘probabilities determined from historic information to anticipated cases when planning aspects of aircraft engine remanufacturing’).
While the home team of the Union at Norton Aircraft was averse to the export of important component parts like the wing and tail to foreign countries, it has been realized that aircraft manufacture being the labour intensive industry it is, must follow the principle of competitive advantage. A typical Boeing 777 for instance, sources components from 11 different countries which come together on their assembly line in Everett, Washington. About 20% of the component structure comes from the Japanese consortium of Fuji, Kawasaki, and Mitsubishi. This export of components and sub-components benefits the company on multiple parameters –
1. Risk diversification
3. Inclination of the country to buy from the company as compared with competitors
Like at Norton, Boeing employees are up in arms against this, and protest with slogans like “Export Planes - Not Our Jobs.” The inevitable truth however is that new standards of global competitiveness enhance efficiency and product value, and givae an incentive to buyer countries, though at the same time they make the job of the Operations Manager more complex and risky. The need for international operations can be broadly classified under the following heads –
1. Reduced Costs – Being a labour intensive industry, foreign locations save on labour costs, grant the ability to give lower skilled jobs to lower cost countries, and free higher cost workers to do more valuable tasks.
2. Improve Supply Chain – Makes use of unique resources in available countries (labour, expertise or raw material)
3. Provide better goods and services – By customising products to meet unique cultural needs in foreign markets and reduce response time to service requirements abroad.
4. Attract new markets – Improve interaction with foreign customers, suppliers and competitive businesses, enhance knowledge of foreign markets. At the same time, it increases the customer base, diversifies risk and smoothes the business cycle. It also expands the life cycle of products which become obsolete in the domestic market
5. Learn to Improve Operations – As evident, many operations management improvisations have come from foreign (to the U.S.) countries like Japan, and foreign operations promote a freer flow of ideas, and adaptations to equipment use and technology.
6. Attract and Retain Global Talent – By making use of local functional expertise, and attracting global talents. It also provides the opportunity to guard against downturns in local markets by relocation.