Monday, October 23, 2006

Not many people get a chance to make a $2 Billion mistake [1]

... but increasingly they are going to be people associated with software.

An article in, by Randall S. Newton, Editor-in-Chief, discusses the significance of the Airbus software disaster.
Bloomberg News is reporting this morning that the use of two different versions of CATIA 3D CAD software—versions that are incompatible at the file level—is largely to blame for significant delays on the Airbus A380 project...

The real problem looks to be a lack of leadership at the top levels at Airbus. Somebody inside Airbus knew that engineers in Germany and Spain were using CATIA V4 while CATIA V5 was in use in the UK and France. Somebody made a decision not to push for a single compatible standard, or to at least invest in a translator system. As a result, Airbus has already announced earnings losses of $2.54 billion over the next three years, according to Bloomberg. I am sure the Airbus board of directors, meeting today in Amsterdam, would like to know Somebody’s name...

The third lesson is to directly address cultural issues regarding the use of design software. Time and time again I have heard engineering managers and CAD directors say the most difficult part of implementing new software is the resistance among the old guard. Why should engineers in Germany and Spain have been allowed to continue using CATIA V4 when engineers in France and the UK were already on CATIA V5? It only makes sense if appeasement is a core corporate value.
[1] I believe it was Fred Brooks who said "It is a very humbling experience to make a $100 million mistake," but that was back when $100 million seemed like a lot of money.

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Comment by Blogger Jim Horning:

More in-depth analysis in this article by Nicola Clark in the International Herald Tribune. Notably, it claims that the software incompatibility was much deeper than just using two versions of the same CAD package--it was very different packages from two different companies. The one used in Germany was limited to producing 2D drawings.
The A380 is by far the most complex commercial jet that Airbus has ever built. It is equipped with 100,000 different wires, totaling 530 kilometers, or 330 miles, in length, that perform 1,150 separate functions. Airbus's next-largest commercial jet, the 380-seat A340-600, has 60,000 wires. Myriad options requested by customers for the A380 further complicate manufacturing...

Meeting this timeline demanded state-of-the art computer-assisted design technology. Since the early 1990s, Airbus sites in France, where the A380's nose and central fuselage sections are built, have used a package of two powerful three-dimensional computer modeling programs called Catia and Circe. Developed by the French software maker Dassault Systèmes, they were used successfully on the A340 and, according to Williams, the Airbus programs chief, "were constantly being improved."

Company officials said the head of the A380 program, Charles Champion, sought as early as 2001 to persuade the managers of the Hamburg design shops of Airbus to adopt the French software for use with the A380.

He met a wall.

German engineers preferred to work with an older design software made by a U.S. company, Computervision. The program had been the gold standard of industrial design tools in the 1980s but was only capable of producing two-dimensional blueprints.

"It was partly a question of national pride," said Williams. "The German engineers sort of felt that there was a French solution being imposed on them. But the fact was there was a tool being used in Hamburg that was behind the times."

Some say there was in fact support among many engineers in Hamburg for making the switch to Catia and Circe, but that they were not given sufficient support from headquarters in Toulouse.

"Changing over to new software is costly and time-consuming," said Weber of Tecop, who has worked with the Hamburg design shops as a consultant. Time, of course, was of the essence, and, Weber said, "Nobody in upper management wanted to get their hands dirty."

There was another possible reason for the preservation of outdated systems in Hamburg: they were labor-intensive and so preserved jobs.
It is also interesting to speculate how much the wiring of the A380 could have been simplified if they had used modern networking technology, instead of point-to-point wiring.

6:44 PM  
Comment by Anonymous Anonymous:

You're incorrect too. It is true the Spanish and German workers were using CATIA V4 in 3D and the Brits and French were using V5 in 3D. The problem was no configuration management - e.g. a 'vault' where the latest design is stored in a neutral format. So each side was designing 'blind'.

On top of that the decision was made to do a rewiring to save weight - switch from copper to aluminum. Unfortunately Al is brittle and can't be bent in radii as tight as Cu - so loops have to be put in - this takes up length. Since the wire harnesses were already built - based on the out of date info that was available - they were too short.

The Joint Strike Fighter - F-35 - is being designed by a worldwide consortium - spread out much further than the EU members of Airbus - and some use V4 and some use V5. They have a strictly controlled system for storing the master, latest, greatest, 3D design. In multiple formats so all designers can see interference problems before they happen.

8:33 PM  

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