In Boeing Co‘s factory of the future, immersive 3-D engineering designs will be twinned with robots that speak to each other, while mechanics around the world will be linked by $3,500 HoloLens headsets made by Microsoft Corp.
It is a snapshot of an ambitious new Boeing strategy to unify sprawling design, production and airline services operations under a single digital ecosystem – in as little as two years.
Critics say Boeing has repeatedly made similar bold pledges on a digital revolution, with mixed results. But insiders say the overarching goals of improving quality and safety have taken on greater urgency and significance as the company tackles multiple threats.
The planemaker is entering 2022 fighting to reassert its engineering dominance after the 737 MAX crisis, while laying the foundation for a future aircraft program over the next decade – a $15 billion gamble. It also aims to prevent future manufacturing problems like the structural flaws that have waylaid its 787 Dreamliner over the past year.
“It’s about strengthening engineering,” Boeing’s chief engineer, Greg Hyslop, told Reuters in his first interview in nearly two years. “We are talking about changing the way we work across the entire company.”
After years of wild market competition, the need to deliver on bulging order books has opened up a new front in Boeing’s war with Europe’s Airbus, this time on the factory floor.
Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury, a former automobile research boss, has pledged to “invent new production systems and leverage the power of data” to optimize its industrial system.
Boeing’s approach so far has been marked by incremental advances within specific jet programs or tooling, rather than the systemic overhaul that characterizes Hyslop’s push today.
The simultaneous push by both plane giants is emblematic of a digital revolution happening globally, as automakers like Ford Motor Co and social media companies like Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc shift work and play into an immersive virtual world sometimes called the metaverse.
So how does the metaverse – a shared digital space often using virtual reality or augmented reality and accessible via the internet – work in aviation?
Like Airbus, Boeing’s holy grail for its next new aircraft is to build and link virtual three-dimensional “digital twin” replicas of the jet and the production system able to run simulations.
The digital mockups are backed by a “digital thread” that stitches together every piece of information about the aircraft from its infancy – from airline requirements, to millions of parts, to thousands of pages of certification documents – extending deep into the supply chain.
Overhauling antiquated paper-based practices could bring powerful change.
More than 70% of quality issues at Boeing trace back to some kind of design issue, Hyslop said. Boeing believes such tools will be central to bringing a new aircraft from inception to market in as little as four or five years.
“You will get speed, you will get improved quality, better communication, and better responsiveness when issues occur,” Hyslop said.
“When the quality from the supply base is better, when the airplane build goes together more smoothly, when you minimize re-work, the financial performance will follow from that.”
Yet the plan faces enormous challenges.
Skeptics point to technical problems on Boeing’s 777X mini-jumbo and T-7A RedHawk military training jet, which were developed using digital tools.
Boeing has also placed too great an emphasis on shareholder returns at the expense of engineering dominance, and continues to cut R&D spending, Teal Group analyst Richard Aboulafia said.
“Is it worth pursuing? By all means,” Aboulafia said. “Will it solve all their problems? No.”
Juggernauts like aircraft parts maker Spirit AeroSystems have already invested in digital technology. Major planemakers have partnerships with French software maker Dassault Systèmes. But hundreds of smaller suppliers spread globally lack the capital or human resources to make big leaps.
Many have been weakened by the MAX and coronavirus crises, which followed a decade of price pressure from Boeing or Airbus.
“They not only tell us what hardware we can buy, they are now going to specify all this fancy digital junk that goes on top of it?” one supply chain executive said.
‘A LONG GAME’
Boeing itself has come to realize that digital technology alone is not a panacea. It must come with organizational and cultural changes across the company, industry sources say.
Boeing recently tapped veteran engineer Linda Hapgood to oversee the “digital transformation,” which one industry source said was underpinned by more than 100 engineers.
Hapgood is best known for turning black-and-white paper drawings of the 767 tanker’s wiring bundles into 3-D images, and then outfitting mechanics with tablets and HoloLens augmented-reality headsets. Quality improved by 90%, one insider said.
In her new role, Hapgood hired engineers who worked on a digital twin for a now-scrapped midmarket airplane known as NMA.
She is also drawing on lessons learned from the MQ-25 aerial refueling drone and the T-7A Red Hawk.
Boeing “built” the first T-7A jets in simulation, following a model-based design. The T-7A was brought to market in just 36 months.
Even so, the program is grappling with parts shortages, design delays and additional testing requirements.
Boeing has a running start with its 777X wing factory in Washington state, where the layout and robot optimization was first done digitally. But the broader program is years behind schedule and mired in certification challenges.
“This is a long game,” Hyslop said. “Every one of these efforts was addressing part of the problem. But now what we want to do is do it from end to end.”
(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Tim Hepher in Paris; Editing by Matthew Lewis)
From howitzers to heli-bombs: Canadian province fights rising avalanche risk
British Columbia is rolling out the big guns – literally – to control avalanches that are forcing closures on some major roads for the first time in decades as the Western Canadian province grapples with a snowier-than-usual winter.
B.C. was rocked in 2021 by extreme weather events, including a record-breaking heatwave, wildfires and unprecedented rains that washed out highways and cut off Vancouver, its main city and home to Canada’s busiest port, from the rest of the country.
The province, Canada’s third-largest by population, uses bombs thrown from helicopters, remote-triggered explosives, and a howitzer gun manned by Canada’s military to keep roads safe. But frequent closures for avalanche control are disrupting critical routes to Vancouver.
At the start of this month, B.C.’s alpine snowpack was 15% higher than average, according to the Weather Network channel.
Extreme winter weather, including November’s torrential precipitation, a deep freeze in late December and an early January thaw, has created weak layers in the snowpack, making steep mountain slopes more prone to avalanches that can release without warning onto valleys below.
“It’s been such a volatile fall and winter season so far, we have had rare ‘extreme’ avalanche warnings go out for parts of (B.C.’s) south coast in December and the risk is still considerable in the interior,” said Tyler Hamilton, a Weather Network meteorologist.
Avalanche control missions involve closing sections of highways while teams use explosives to pre-emptively trigger smaller slides, preventing the snowpack from becoming too deep and unstable.
This winter a section of Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon, 150 km (93 miles) northeast of Vancouver, needed avalanche control for the first time in 25 years, B.C.’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure said.
Along Highway 99 north of Vancouver, avalanche control and risk-reduction activities are three times the seasonal average, with some slide paths producing avalanches big enough to hit the highway for the first time in more than a decade.
Avalanche control in Allison Pass further south on Highway 3, another key route connecting Vancouver to the rest of Canada, has also been above average, the ministry said.
All three highways were damaged by the November floods, and a busy avalanche control season is putting further strain on provincial resources. The Coquihalla Highway near Hope only reopened to regular traffic on Wednesday, and provincial authorities said record snow and avalanche risk had delayed repairs to Highway 1 through the Fraser Canyon.
Further east in the province, avalanche teams in Rogers Pass, a rugged 40-km section of Highway 1 running beneath 135 slide paths in Glacier National Park, are dealing with nearly 30% more snowfall than usual and control missions are also above average.
Highway 1 is Canada’s main east-west artery and approximately 3,000 vehicles traverse Rogers Pass every day in winter. A major Canadian Pacific rail line runs parallel to the highway.
Avalanche control missions involve soldiers from the 1st Regiment of the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, which is stationed in Rogers Pass in winter. They use a howitzer to fire shells packed with 4 kg (8.8 lbs) of explosives in the direction of loaded avalanche paths at 17 different locations along the highway.
“Our goal is to bring down as much snow as we can and bring the hazard down to a point where it’s safe to open the highway,” said Jim Phillips, acting avalanche operations coordinator for Parks Canada, which runs avalanche control in the national parks.
The Rogers Pass program has been running since the highway opened in 1961. Before that, CP trains crossing the Selkirk Mountains in winter ran a higher risk of deadly snow slides, including one that killed 62 railway workers in 1910.
So far this winter the team has fired 333 howitzer rounds, produced 197 controlled avalanches and closed the highway for 43 hours over seven separate days.
Phillips said his team also uses heli-bombing and remote-trigger systems to set off detonations, and spends C$600,000 ($480,346) a year on explosives alone.
“It’s a balancing act. You want to keep traffic moving and minimize closures, but also minimize risk to people using the transportation corridor,” he added.
And winter weather in Canada is far from over.
Avalanche control is typically needed until late April or early May, depending on the snowpack, and the Weather Network forecasts above average winter storm systems returning to B.C. in February and March.
“We’re still in a La Niña situation,” said the Weather Network’s Hamilton, referring to a weather pattern that tends to result in above-average precipitation and cold temperatures in B.C.
($1 = 1.2491 Canadian dollars)
(Reporting by Nia Williams; Editing by Paul Simao)
China’s international flight suspensions leave travellers stranded, hurt businesses
When Dwight Law’s father died in November, the Shanghai-based U.S. expat flew back to Kansas, leaving his wife and dog behind in China while he attended to matters relating to his father’s death.
Law, who runs an architecture and design firm, has lived in Shanghai for 20 years and had expected to return last week.
But with dozens of flights between China and the United States suspended by Chinese authorities because of passengers testing positive for COVID-19 on arrival, finding a flight back even in February is proving near-impossible and posing a threat to Law’s company.
“Now with no flights scheduled, I am currently locked out of China, away from my wife and family and not able to attend to business,” Law said. “I have 50 employees in China. Without my presence, the business will suffer and so will the livelihoods of each employee.”
Even before the latest flight cancellations, international capacity to and from China was running at just 2% of pre-COVID levels as the country sticks to a strict zero-COVID policy of stamping out all cases while other parts of world open up.
The zero-COVID mentality is likely to stay for most of 2022, Bank of America Securities analysts said in a note on Tuesday, in bad news for the 845,000 foreign passport holders in China, a number already reduced since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
China’s aviation regulator in January alone cancelled 143 return flights as the highly transmissible Omicron variant spreads across the globe, according to a report from Chinese aviation data provider flight master last Friday.
That was the most in a month since it introduced a policy of suspending flights when positive cases were found in June 2020.
The flight suspensions, which also include some services to Europe and other parts of Asia, are one of the biggest challenges faced by companies doing business in China, said a spokesperson for the Europe Chamber of Commerce in China.
“The recent cancellations send a clear message that China will not deviate from its current strategy,” the spokesperson said, referring to the zero-COVID policy.
Graphic: China’s international flight suspensions – https://graphics.reuters.com/CHINA-AVIATION/USA-FLIGHTS/lbvgnjerbpq/chart.png
China now requires passengers to have started costly COVID tests seven days before boarding in the departure city of their direct flight into China. That creates a headache for travellers like Law who are not based in U.S. cities with direct flights.
Tough travel policies in transit hubs for U.S.-China travellers like Taiwan, Korea and Japan also effectively rule out less costly indirect flights.
A Google Flights search by Reuters shows no flights from San Francisco to Shanghai are available for booking until late March at any price.
Jing Quan, minister of the Chinese embassy in the United States, said Beijing is working closely with the U.S. State Department to strike a balance on the number of commercial flights to China. Charter flights for Olympics athletes have not been affected, he said.
There has also been less of an impact on cargo. China Southern Airlines plans to fly its A380 superjumbos with cargo only from Los Angeles to Guangzhou, while carrying passengers in the other direction, it told the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).
Hainan Airlines has received U.S. approvals for cargo-only flights using passenger planes and China Eastern is seeking a similar nod, according to DOT filings.
While that is a comfort to exporters, it provides little solace to stranded travellers like Law.
“COVID will not go away I am afraid. It is here to stay,” he said. “What’s China going to do, close its borders for the next five or 10 years while the world outside of China learns to manage, live and gain herd immunity? It’s nuts.”
(Reporting by Stella Qiu in Beijing and Jamie Freed in Sydney; additional reporting by Martin Pollard in Shanghai; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
First aid finally reaches Tonga as telephone lines partially restored
The first aircraft carrying humanitarian supplies arrived in Tonga on Thursday, five days after the South Pacific island nation was hit by a volcanic eruption and tsunami that devastated communities and spoiled most of its drinking water.
A Royal New Zealand Air Force C-130 Hercules landed in Tonga’s Fua’amotu International Airport, a defence spokesperson said, after a blanket of volcanic ash was cleared off the runway.
An Australian Globemaster military transport aircraft also landed, the ABC TV broadcaster reported.
“The aircraft is carrying humanitarian aid and disaster relief supplies, including water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene and family kits, and communications equipment,” New Zealand’s foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta, said in a statement, referring to the New Zealand plane.
Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton said its aircraft was loaded with supplies including water desalination equipment, shelter, kitchens, and a sweeper to help remove ash from the airport. A second Australian aircraft is due to make the flight on Thursday.
The delivery of the supplies was contactless to ensure Tonga remains free of the coronavirus.
The explosion of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano on Saturday killed at least three people, sent tsunami waves rolling across the archipelago, damaging villages, resorts and many buildings and knocked out communications for the nation of about 105,000 people.
Rachael Moore, Australia’s high commissioner to Tonga, said the loss of property had been “catastrophic”.
“Along the western beaches there is a moonscape where once beautiful resorts and many, many homes stood,” Moore told Australian radio, adding that drinking water was “an extremely high priority”.
Telephone links between Tonga and the outside world were reconnected late on Wednesday, though restoring full internet services was likely to take a month or more, according to the owner of the archipelago’s sole subsea communications cable.
Speaking to Reuters from the capital, Nuku’alofa, journalist Marian Kupu said Tongans were cleaning up all the dust from the volcanic eruption but feared they may run out of drinking water.
“Each home has their own tanks of water supply but most of them are filled with dust so it’s not safe for drinking,” Kupu said.
She also said villages on the western side of Tonga were very badly hit.
“I won’t say we are expecting more deaths but as we are speaking the government is trying to fly to the other islands to check over them.”
Asked if there was enough food, she said: “I can say maybe we can survive for the next few weeks but I’m not sure about water.”
‘SIGH OF RELIEF’
New Zealand is sending two ships, one of which is carrying 250,000 litres of water and desalination equipment that will be able to produce 70,000 litres a day.
This ship is due to arrive on Friday, while the other is due in earlier on Thursday to check shipping channels and wharf approaches at Tonga’s port.
An Australian ship is due to set sail on Friday.
Tongans abroad were frantically calling families back home to ensure they are safe.
“There’s a sigh of relief as we are able to communicate with our loved-ones,” said John Pulu, an Auckland-based Tongan television and radio personality.
“We are breathing and sleeping a little better.”
The United Nations said that about 84,000 people – more than 80% of the population – has been badly affected by the disaster.
“They have been affected through loss of houses, loss of communication, what we understand is the issue with the water,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters.
The most pressing humanitarian needs are safe water, food and non-food items, he said.
“Water is really the biggest life‑saving issue.”
The Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted about 40 miles (65 km) from the Tongan capital with a blast heard 2,300 km (1,400 miles) away in New Zealand.
Waves reaching up to 15 metres (49 feet) hit the outer Ha’apai island group, destroying all the houses on the island of Mango, as well as the west coast of Tonga’s main island, Tongatapu, where 56 houses were destroyed or seriously damaged, the prime minister’s office said.
(Reporting by Praveen Menon, Kirsty Needham and Michelle Nichols; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Michael Perry and Richard Pullin)
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