By Kevin Meyer
Over three years ago I wrote a short piece comparing the new Airbus A380 to the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner from a batch vs. one piece flow perspective.
The A380 represents a bet-the-house wager on one of the most disliked same-old models of air travel: the hub-and-spoke. The A380 is built around the assumption that airlines will continue to fly smaller planes on shorter routes (spokes) into a few large hubs, then onward to the next hub on giant airplanes.
Basically the A380 was batch – the illusion of efficiency by processing large volumes at one time – vs. the "smaller batch" of the smaller 787. Sure that was a stretch analogy, but so be it.
And the issues with batch processing came home to roost yesterday when one of Qantas' A380s had an engine problem, and the airline decided to ground its fleet of six of those aircraft. Actually "engine problem" is putting it lightly – when a big chunk of it blows off it could be disastrous.
So contemplate that for a minute – six monster planes out of service, each transporting about 440 people on multiple flights per day.
What does that do to flow? How do you recover? How do large process monuments contribute to supply chain risk?
It takes a lot of smaller machines to recover from the loss of one big machine. The loss of one big machine also creates a major disruption to the flow through the rest of the system comprised of smaller machines – the smaller planes connecting to and from the hubs served by the A380s. I wouldn't want to be in Qantas' scheduling center right now. Or its customer service operation.
So think about your own operations. Are you following the conventional wisdom that says larger machines with more capacity are better? Or are you considering risk and less tangible potential cost attributes and looking at flexibility and ability, perhaps by larger numbers of smaller machiens, to recover from problems?
A similar effect is seen in the NZ Dairy industry. The old (pre-Fonterra) price model encouraged the building of bigger and bigger powder dryers. These 15 or 20 tph monsters produce milk powder cheaply and efficiently but the switchover costs to different powder specifications are tonnes of powder. So the Dairy Board, and Fonterra has followed, became very efficient commodity powder producers. To develop and make many varied specialty products is only economic if they can be made into high volume commodities. Big is efficient but Fonterra is well known for being a rapid “commoditizer” of specialty products.
Tom Robinson says
Boeing’s New Large Airplane project In the 1990s, Boeing’s New Large Airplane project assessed whether to build an ultra-jumbo like the A380. Boeing actually teamed with entities within the Airbus partnership to do this detailed analysis over several years.
I recall two major conclusions drawn by Boeing after this examination. First, there wasn’t a market for both Boeing and Airbus to make such a jet and sell enough of them to recover their costs. Second, Boeing bet on increased point-to-point demand and on less hub-and-spoke routing.
Your point, of course, is that network dependence on huge jets is like dependence on “monument” machines in manufacturing, and you’re right. I’m not sure Boeing saw this as a danger, though, in the 1990s when deciding not to build a jet like the A380.
david foster says
The size of the A380 also creates an externality which can have effects on overall airport capacity: because of its increased wake turbulence, the FAA has established separation guidelines involving greater following distances than for other heavy aircraft.
Can’t think right off what the manufacturing analogy for this might be, but I bet there is one.
Douglas Burnette says
The manufacturing analogy to wake turbulence is retooling time.
The a380 represents that one die that isn’t SMED-compatible…The one die that requires extra shims, an extra vacuum gripper for the part, etc.
But management likes the sexy new die, because it does, say, two parts in tandem. They don’t think through the cost though: It takes much longer to exchange, much longer to fix, and if one side of a dual die is damaged, it puts the whole thing out of operation.
Gray Rinehart says
Very interesting analogy in the original post, and some excellent comments (especially the insight into Boeing’s decision process). Thanks!
This strikes me as an illustration of the perils of monoculture not of batching. It wouldn’t have made a difference if they had used smaller aircraft. If they had a similar problem with smaller craft it would still have grounded the entire fleet.