Longtime Boeing engineers say the effort was complicated by a push to outsource work to lower-paid contractors.
The Max software — plagued by issues that could keep the planes grounded months longer after U.S. regulators this week revealed a new flaw — was developed at a time Boeing was laying off experienced engineers and pressing suppliers to cut costs.
Increasingly, the iconic American planemaker and its subcontractors have relied on temporary workers making as little as $9 an hour to develop and test software, often from countries lacking a deep background in aerospace — notably India.
Boeing said the company did not rely on engineers from HCL and Cyient for the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which has been linked to the Lion Air crash last October and the Ethiopian Airlines disaster in March. The Chicago-based planemaker also said it didn’t rely on either firm for another software issue disclosed after the crashes: a cockpit warning light that wasn’t working for most buyers.
Engineers who worked on the Max, which Boeing began developing eight years ago to match a rival Airbus SE plane, have complained of pressure from managers to limit changes that might introduce extra time or cost.
“Boeing was doing all kinds of things, everything you can imagine, to reduce cost, including moving work from Puget Sound, because we’d become very expensive here,” said Rick Ludtke, a former Boeing flight controls engineer laid off in 2017. “All that’s very understandable if you think of it from a business perspective. Slowly over time it appears that’s eroded the ability for Puget Sound designers to design.”
Rabin, the former software engineer, recalled one manager saying at an all-hands meeting that Boeing didn’t need senior engineers because its products were mature. “I was shocked that in a room full of a couple hundred mostly senior engineers we were being told that we weren’t needed,” said Rabin, who was laid off in 2015.
Starting with the 787 Dreamliner, launched in 2004, it sought to increase profits by instead providing high-level specifications and then asking suppliers to design more parts themselves. The thinking was “they’re the experts, you see, and they will take care of all of this stuff for us,” said Frank McCormick, a former Boeing flight-controls software engineer who later worked as a consultant to regulators and manufacturers. “This was just nonsense.”
Boeing has also expanded a design center in Moscow. At a meeting with a chief 787 engineer in 2008, one staffer complained about sending drawings back to a team in Russia 18 times before they understood that the smoke detectors needed to be connected to the electrical system, said Cynthia Cole, a former Boeing engineer who headed the engineers’ union from 2006 to 2010.
U.S.-based avionics companies in particular moved aggressively, shifting more than 30% of their software engineering offshore versus 10% for European-based firms in recent years, said Hilderman, an avionics safety consultant with three decades of experience whose recent clients include most of the major Boeing suppliers.
With a strong dollar, a big part of the attraction was price. Engineers in India made around $5 an hour; it’s now $9 or $10, compared with $35 to $40 for those in the U.S. on an H1B visa, he said. But he’d tell clients the cheaper hourly wage equated to more like $80 because of the need for supervision, and he said his firm won back some business to fix mistakes.
Submitted June 30, 2019 at 03:19PM by COMPUTER1313