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The FAA has grounded Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft for a second time. The first was after a control system malfunctioned because of a sensor failure, causing the plane to nose-dive into the ground just after takeoff. After 22 months, the aircraft was recertified as airworthy. Recently, a mechanical failure caused a patch in the fuselage to blow out during flight. Fortunately, this plane did not nose-dive into the ground but could land safely. All Max 9 aircraft are being inspected for quality issues again.

W. Edwards Deming, known as the father of the quality movement, defined quality as the product's ability to meet the customer's requirements.

Working for Honeywell in Minneapolis, I was involved in product developments for several Boeing aircraft: new platforms B-757, B-767, B-777 and B-787, and revisions on older designs, including the B-737. Each of these developments involved an intimate relationship between Boeing and Honeywell across multiple levels of organization. At the heart of the work were the customers' requirements. Meeting these drove daily decisions in the project planning.

It was clear, at that time, Honeywell prided itself on meeting and exceeding the customer's requirements. Often, we would include not just the customer, i.e., Boeing, but their customer, i.e., airlines and passengers. It was amazing to me how many scientists in our research center (most having never flown a plane) understood the control issues in operating an aircraft. At times, these researchers had more profound insights than pilots, often delivering prototypes exceeding the safety and comfort needs of the end customer.

Introducing a new aircraft starts five years before it is manufactured. Let me take you through one of these projects. The B-777 was to compete in the marketplace with the McDonnell-Douglas DC-10. It would carry as many passengers and cargo with only two engines instead of three. Operating a plane with two engines is significantly lower-cost than three. To do this, the aircraft needed more lift, which meant the wings must be longer. Longer wings became a marketing issue because if the B-777 were to replace the DC-10, it should use the same airport gate as a DC-10 worldwide. The longer wings could become an obstacle to meeting this requirement. The suggestion to offer a wing fold was put on the drawing board. Also, the reduced availability of engine thrust resulted in the wings having to have more added lift during landing. This was achieved with a leading-edge slat that would be deployed on final approach. Aerodynamic studies showed, however, that if this slat did not deploy properly, the lift would be diminished, and the plane would need to be brought in "hot," at a higher than desired landing speed.

Boeing engineers asked Honeywell to attend a meeting at their headquarters in Seattle. There were more than 40 people in attendance. Boeing engineers laid out these issues with the longer wings: They needed two fail-safe detection systems. One for determining that a wing fold system would be locked in place and a second for detecting a skew in the deployment of a leading edge slat the length of the inner wing. The extra challenge in the problem was that they could not guarantee the tolerance in the gap between the parts to be sensed. The slat skew sensor was needed to detect a misalignment of less than 0.1 inches, while the gap as the slat was deployed varied from 1 to 3 inches. The sensor has to have the same accuracy over a variation 300 times larger.

I was apprehensive about such a challenge. Not because Boeing engineers could not detail the problem. This was done with accuracy, diligence, confidence and completeness. The two issues they faced were crystal-clear and the requirements defined. They didn't detail the operating range of the environmental conditions these two sensor systems would have to function over or the required reliability for these safety-critical functions. Honeywell well understood what these performance requirements would be.

At the end of their 30-minute presentation of drawings, issues and requirements, Boeing asked Honeywell to take over the meeting. We led a discussion for the next two hours, going through dozens of ideas, paring down to an approach based on magnetics technology. Our divisional management decided we would return with a working prototype in three weeks.

Well, we demonstrated a working device as promised. If I say so myself, it was damn clever and damn accurate.

Two years later, Honeywell submitted its bid to Boeing for this folding wing control system, including the slat skew sensor system. We'd worked out all the issues to put this device into production and guaranteed its reliability, incorporating similar technologies used in other products. The bid proposal was 2 inches thick, detailing how we could meet every requirement in Boeing's Request for Proposal.

Two months later, we heard rumors that we would not win the bid.

One afternoon, we started calling our contacts in Boeing Engineering. Engineering had prioritized the bidders and assured us Honeywell was their first choice. However, they would not confirm that Boeing management had signed off on the selection.

We still believed we would win the program. In the past, Boeing always selected the highest technical bidder then renegotiated the price as the program phased into volume production. It was the best process to meet Boeing's and the passengers' quality demands.

After more questioning and phone calls, Boeing Procurement requested a final bid package. We did not lower our costs and resubmitted our original quote, again stating clearly that we met and even exceeded every requirement for the system.

This time, we were notified we were not selected for the program. Through several discussions with the Boeing engineering managers, we later found out that Boeing's procurement process had changed. Boeing supply management downgraded the engineering assessment from prioritized capability to either meeting or not meeting the requirements. Then, procurement would select the lowest bidder from this pool of suppliers meeting the requirements. Engineering was no longer needed to sign off on the selection. (We heard that Boeing engineers wore a black armband for a month protesting the selection for this program.) The selection process could now be done in a spreadsheet with no account for the uncertainty that engineering often expected and hoped to have some insurance against. This would become a fundamental change in the aircraft industry.

Honeywell's value proposition was no longer required from the industry. Cost accounting took over. Suppliers were not scored on technical excellence but changed to meeting or not meeting the requirements. (In some ways, this switch from what we called "bean counters" driving the decisions instead of engineering led to Honeywell eventually being purchased by a company prized by Wall Street for its "bottom line" attention.)

Back to Max 9. Today, many of us wonder how such aircraft safety disasters can happen. As the industry changed in the late 1990s, technologists were forced to leave the avionics industry early. Not because we couldn't deliver, but because our commitment to the highest quality was no longer valued.

Having an aircraft grounded by the FAA because of our technology was our greatest fear. It is what kept us up at night. Who's not sleeping now?

James Lenz worked for Honeywell in Minneapolis from 1980 to 2002. His previous contributions to Star Tribune Opinion include " 'Miracle on the Hudson' had origins in Minneapolis" (January 2019) and "The top secrets of Minneapolis" (September 2022).