BOEING 737 MAX

May 11, 2019


The five points given below were taken from an excellent article written by Jacob Beningo and appeared in “Electronics & Test Aerospace”, May 2, 2019.  I have added my own comment relative to those five (5) points.  It appears, from what we know now, there were no mechanical failures causing both aircraft to crash.  The real failures were lack of training and possibly embedded electronic systems effecting on-board systems. 

Recently the news headlines have been dominated by two crashes involving Boeing’s new 737 MAX aircraft. Both of these tragedies occurred under similar circumstances and within six months of each other. The fallout from these disasters may only be starting as aircraft around the world have been grounded, production of the 737 MAX has been decreased and March sales of the aircraft dropped to zero. The damage to Boeing’s reputation as a safety leader has now also come into question as investigations have been opened into how the system at the center of the investigations, MCAS, was developed and certified.

The investigations into the sequence of events that led to the loss of these aircraft with resulting causes will take time to fully discover—maybe even years but certainly months. However, with the information that has currently been released, embedded systems companies and developers can look at the fiasco Boeing is currently going through and learn and be reminded of several general lessons that they can apply to their own industries and products.

Lesson #1 – Don’t compromise your product to save or make money short-term

There is normal pressure on businesses and developers today to increase revenue, reduce costs and ship products as fast as possible. The result is not always quality. It isn’t security. It isn’t user friendly. The objective is maximum short-term growth at any cost as long as the short-term growth is maximized.  The company needed to remain in good standing with Wall Street and their investors.  That seems to be the bottom line.  Boeing appeared to be under significant pressure from customers and shareholders to deliver an aircraft that could compete with the Airbus A319neo.  They may have started to cave to this normative pressure.

Lesson #2 – Identify and mitigate single points of failure

Boeing and the FAA are looking at embedded systems in trying to discover the root cause of both failures and how corrections may be made to eliminate future tragedies.  In any embedded system that is being developed, it’s important to understand the potential failure modes and what effect those failures will have on the system and how they can be mitigated. There are many ways that teams go about doing this, including performing a Design Failure & Effects Analysis (DFMEA) which analyzes design functions, failure modes and their effect on the customer or user. Once such an analysis is done, we can then determine how we can mitigate the effect of a failure.  This is common practice for systems and subsystems of any complexity.

Lesson #3 – Don’t assume your user can handle it

An interesting lesson many engineers can take from the fiasco is that we can’t assume or rely on our users to properly operate our devices, especially if those devices are meant to operate autonomously. Complex systems require more time to analyze and troubleshoot. It seems that Boeing assumed that if an issue arose, the user had enough training and experience, and knew the existing procedures well enough to compensate. Right or wrong, as designers, we may need to use “lowered expectations” and do everything we can to protect the user from himself.

Lesson #4 – Highly tested and certified systems have defects

Edsger Dijkstra wrote that “Program testing can be used to show the presence of bugs, but never to show their absence.” We can’t show that a system doesn’t have bugs which means we have to assume that even our highly-tested and certified systems have defects. This should change the way every developer thinks about how they write software. Instead of trying to expose defects on a case-by-case basis, we should be developing defect strategies that can detect the system is not behaving properly or that something does not seem normal with its inputs. By doing this, we can test as many defects out of our system as possible. But when a new one arises in the field, a generic defect mechanism will hopefully be able to detect that something is amiss and take a corrective action.  

Lesson #5 – Sensors and systems fail

The fact that sensors and systems fail should seem like an obvious statement, but quite a few developers write software as if their microcontroller will never lock-up, encounter a single event upset or have corrupted memory. Sensors will freeze, processors will lock-up, garbage-in will produce garbage-out. Developers need to assume that things will go wrong and write code to handle those cases, rather than if we will always have a system that works as well in the field as it does on out lab benches. If you design your system considering the fact that it will fail, you’ll end up with a robust system that has to do a lot of hard work before it finally finds a way to fail (if it ever does).

I had an opportunity to hear the chief engineering program manager discuss the “Dreamliner” and the complexities of that system.  They were LEGION. Extremely complex.  Very time-consuming to work out all of the “bugs” relative to all of the computer programming necessary for successful AND safe air travel.  Trying to make a system “simple” by making it complex is a daunting task and one that needs to be accomplished, but it is always a “push” to get this done in a timely fashion and satisfy management and Wall Street.

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Portions of this post are taken from “Design News Daily Magazine”, online version, FW 18, 2019.

I often hear there will come a time when education will be completely online, in other words, no classroom.  The teacher will lecture via the internet and all classes may come to us through video conferencing or SKYPE-like services.  I know I am ‘old-school” but I do not think that will nearly fill all requirements students have relative to obtaining enough information and structure needed to enter the workforce after graduation.  I KNOW, eliminating the classroom will not suffice as far as fulfilling an engineering degree that is usable. (Usable is the operative word here.)  There is too much give-and take in the classroom for that to occur.   Too many questions would go unanswered providing a dearth of preparation for the “outside and real” world.

The factor that just may prove me incorrect is the cost of an engineering education.  Getting an engineering degree is tough, and the soaring cost of colleges doesn’t make it any easier. For many years, college costs have been rising at twice the rate of inflation, and today’s most expensive engineering degrees reflect that, having recently cracked the seventy thousand dollars ($70,000)-a-year plateau.

To be sure, all of those seventy thousand plus schools offer financial aid, often in substantial amounts. In some cases, the final dollar figure may be comparable to that of a state school after all the aid is totaled up. That, of course, is if the applicant receives financial aid. I am using current figures from US News & World Reports Best Colleges, and have put together a list of the most expensive engineering schools in the US. All of the colleges on the list offer great educations. You really need to sit down for this one.  Here we go.

1. Harvey Mudd College, $75,003. The country’s most expensive engineering degree belongs to a school that may not have the Harvard- or MIT-name-brand, but nevertheless features a top-notch engineering program. In this year’s edition of US News & World Reports Best Colleges, Mudd tied for first as the best engineering program among schools where the top degree is a bachelors or masters. A tiny school with just 844 students, Mudd takes a different approach to education. A big part of the school’s method involves fellowships for students, enabling them to make a strong connection between engineering theory and the real world. The final cost — $75,003 – includes tuition, room and board. About 50% of “Mudders,” as its students are known, receive financial aid, with $43,208 being the average package. (Image source: Wikipedia/by Imagine)

2. Columbia University, $73,446. Columbia University’s engineering school is the country’s third oldest, and is ranked 18th among schools whose highest degree is a Ph.D. The New York City-based college is extremely selective, offering entry to only about 6% of applicants. The average accepted applicant has an ACT score ranging between 32-35, with 96% in the top 10% of their class. Financial aid is generous – averaging about $58,000 – but only about half of incoming students receive such aid. (Image source: Wikipedia/by Andrew Chen)

3. University of Southern California, $71,625. As private universities go, USC is a whopper, with about 18,000 undergraduates, of which about 10% are enrolled in engineering. US News & World Report ranks USC’s Viterbi Engineering School 24th among colleges whose highest degree is a Ph.D. Departments include mechanical, aerospace, astronautical, biomedical, industrial, chemical, electrical, and civil. About 38% of admitted students receive financial aid, with the average package being $51,509. (Image source: Wikipedia/by Bestweekevr)

4. University of Pennsylvania, $71,200. A private university in the Ivy League, the University of Pennsylvania is both a great and expensive source of education. Its engineering school is legendary for its development of the first general-purpose computer, ENIAC, in 1946. US News & World Report ranks it 24th among engineering schools whose highest degree is a Ph.D. About 46% of students receive financial aid, with the average package being $48,971. (Image source: Wikipedia/by Bryan Y.W. Shin)

5. Northwestern University, $71,193. Northwestern University in Evanston, IL features one of the premier engineering colleges in the US, with a ranking of 14th from US News & World Report. It is, however, extremely selective, with only about 9% of candidates accepted. The average incoming ACT is 32-35, and 91% of accepted applicants are in the top 10% of their high school class. About 45% of undergrads receive financial aid, with the average package coming to $49,030. (Image source: Wikipedia)

6. Tufts University, $70,942. Tufts University of Medford, MA, isn’t a household name, but it’s a stellar, highly selective school. In 2019, only 14% of applicants were admitted, and the average incoming student had an ACT score ranging from 31-34. About 9% of Tufts’ small undergrad population (enrollment, 5,483) is enrolled in the engineering curriculum. Its engineering school is ranked 59th among those whose highest degree is a Ph.D. Financial aid is awarded to 38% of applicants. (Image source: Wikipedia/by Halpaugh)

7. Dartmouth College, $70,791. New Hampshire-based Dartmouth College is a liberal arts school, and as such gives a bachelor of arts degree (B.A.) to all engineering science majors, then encourages them to stay on and earn a Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.) degree. Like all Ivy League schools, it’s extremely selective, with only about 10% of applicants gaining admission. Dartmouth’s Thayer School of Engineering is ranked 48th among schools whose top degree is a Ph.D. About 50% of undergrads receive financial aid, with the average package coming to $50,625. (Image source: Wikipedia/by Kane5187)

8. Brown University, $70,326. Brown University in Providence, RI, is yet another of the highly-selective Ivies, with only about 8% of applicants being admitted. It’s engineering college, which makes up about 6% of Brown’s undergrad population, is ranked 38th among schools whose highest degree is a Ph.D. About 44% of new students receive financial aid, with the average package being $49,269. (Image source: Wikipedia/by Apavio

9. Smith College, $69,924. Smith College in Northampton, MA is typically thought of as a liberal arts school, and is in fact rated 11th among all the nation’s liberal arts colleges by US News & World Report. Still, the small all-women’s school completed a new science and engineering facility in 2009, with the idea that it would “blur the boundaries between traditional disciplines, creating an optimum environment for students and faculty to address key scientific and technological developments of our time.” Smith’s engineering program is ranked 15th among schools whose top degree is a bachelors or masters. (Image source: Wikipedia/by Samasinter)

10. Carnegie Mellon University, $69,883. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has long been regarded as one of the nation’s premier engineering schools. In 2019, US News & World Report ranked it sixth among schools whose highest degree is a Ph.D. The university is relatively small, with an undergrad population of just 6,664, but engineering makes up a whopping 24% of those students. Carnegie Mellon is world-renown for its work in robotics, with many of its grad students filling key spots in companies making autonomous cars. About 39% of undergrads receive financial aid, with the average package being $43,182. (Image source: Wikipedia/by Dllu).

CONCLUSION:  You will notice that MIT, Stanford, Georgia Tech, Duke, Rose-Hulman, University of Wisconsin, Perdue, etc. were not even mentioned.  These are remarkable schools when considering an engineering degree.  Really, most accredited engineering universities do an excellent job, certainly for undergraduate work leading to a BS in engineering.  Look at the faculty, the location, the cost and you will do just fine choosing a university that meets all of your engineering-student needs.

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