Will cloud software prevent future design catastrophes similar to A380?

Will cloud software prevent future design catastrophes similar to A380?


Large CAD and PLM projects are very complex. They can involve multiple organizations, thousands of engineers and high level complexity of data. To keep such organization moving is not a simple tasks. When it fails, it can create a huge problem.

My attention was caught by blog articles “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world. The following entry – Airbus 380 project is a record in the catalogue of catastrophes.

According to the article, A380 caused additional cost of $6.1B due to project delays. The problem was caused by wire harnesses design done by different groups of engineers using different versions of CAD and PLM software.

If you’re not familiar with the level of complexity in aircraft wire harnesses design in the aircraft, the following passage can be a good illustration to the complexity of the problem.

At the heart of the problems were difficulties integrating the complex wiring system needed to operate the aircraft with the metal airframe through which the wiring needed to thread. With 530Km of wires, cables and wiring harnesses weave their way throughout the airframe.  With more than 100,000 wires and 40,300 connectors performing 1,150 separate functions, the Airbus A380 has the most complex electrical system Airbus had ever designed.

In a nutshell, the problem with A380 was crazy simple – wire harnesses didn’t fit the airframe. The following picture can give you some idea of how wire harness look.


The core of the problem was the fact Airbus engineers operated different version of CAD and PLM software for design and DMU (digital mockup), which was supposed to validate clashes and alignment between airframe and wire harnesses. Here is the passage explaining the problem.

Internal reviews identified that the heart of the problem was the fact that the different design groups working on the project had used different Computer Aided Design (CAD) software to create the engineering drawings. The development of the aircraft was a collaboration between 16 sites spread across 4 different countries. German and Spanish designers had used one version of the software (CATIA version 4), while British and French teams had upgraded to version 5. In theory, the fact that the design centers were sharing their drawings meant that the electrical system designed in Germany would be compatible with the airframe components designed in France. Part way through the project the design centers also started integrating their diagrams into a single 3D Digital Mock-up Unit (DMU) that should further have validated compatibility. Unfortunately, the construction of F-WWOW demonstrated that theory and practice are not always the same thing.

It was very interesting to learn, but Airbus was forced to bring engineers from multiple places to work together in order to fix the problem.

Stripping out the wiring from the prototype, redesigning the wiring, making new harnesses and then rethreading the wiring into the airframe became a monumental task. Taking months to complete the project was delayed multiple times as hundreds of engineers tried to overcome the problems. At one point more than 1,100 German engineers were camped out at the Toulouse production facility trying to rectify the problems.

A380 is a great example of importance in developing of new technologies to overcome problems related to data collaboration. Most of existing technologies are relying on multiple mechanisms of file system and database synchronizations between data belonging to multiple locations. These technologies evolved from the past were file systems was (and it still is) the fundamental mechanism to represent design data. There technologies aren’t perfect and combined with multiple version of software can lead to the results similar to A380 project.

My hunch that similar problems occur in other (smaller) projects, but they are not getting such level of visibility as A380.

It made me think about new trends in development of software using cloud systems that can insure better synchronization of information and potentially eliminate the problem of inconsistencies between software releases. The fundamental assumption of full cloud software is to have a single software release shared by all users (it can potentially be different depends on deployment model, but single software release is a desired configuration). The same can be said about the data. Although for large distributed system data will be distributed as well, the mechanisms of data distribution are fundamentally different and provide much less space for mistakes and inconsistencies.

What is my conclusion? The core of A380 problem – multiple versions of CAD software and synchronization between data. The problem can be potentially solved by new cloud software architecture and instant collaboration between people. New software architecture can overcome the problem of data synchronization, data inconsistencies and mistakes that can be caused by synchronization of files and usage of multiple CAD / PLM software versions. While projects such as A380 are unique in terms of requirements and complexity, new technologies can bring significant improvement in data management and coordination between engineers for smaller projects as well. Manufacturing is becoming even more distributed than ever. New cloud data management technologies will play a significant role in the future of manufacturing networks. Just my thoughts…

Best, Oleg

Want to learn more about PLM? Check out my new PLM Book website.

Disclaimer: I’m co-founder and CEO of openBoM developing cloud based bill of materials and inventory management tool for hardware startups and contract manufacturing.

Image credit NYT article and airliner.net forum article


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