Recently I was asked why a parent should pay to send a child to my current university when there are so many inexpensive degrees now available online. I repeated the standard, albeit completely honest, reaction among academics at traditional brick-and-mortar institutions: If you want to buy a degree, go to University of Phoenix. If you want an education, go to a real college. Online education excels at offering the cheapest, easiest route to a degree. But that's it. Cheap and easy are the positives. The downside is learning next to nothing. If you simply need a degree to get a promotion from G-8 to G-11 at the Department of Such-and-Such, then online courses are ideal for you. If you want to learn stuff, they're not. It has its place, but it's important to be realistic about what the process does and does not do well.
Back in 2007, Boeing was the subject of many glowing tributes among business journalists and other ooze-secreting MBA types for their revolutionary approach to building the 787 Dreamliner. After decades of the aircraft industry building and re-building the same basic designs in different sizes, the 787 was going to be an evolutionary leap. It would use plastics and carbon fiber in place of metal, electronics in place of hydraulics, and other weight/space saving technologies. Another novel aspect of its design was that Boeing was essentially going to crowdsource it and build it "efficiently" (i.e., on the cheap). It cut development costs with H-1B visas, cut production costs with outsourcing, and allowed its contractors to freely subcontract to further reduce costs. The 787 is truly the Plane Globalization Built.
Rest assured that the numerous emergency landings and the worldwide grounding of the aircraft that have been delivered (several years late) is unrelated.
Thankfully the internet's memory is as long as mine, and here you can enjoy an example of the kind of praise heaped on the company for the innovation of farming out the job of building the components of an exceptionally complex machine to – wait for it – over 900 contractors and subcontractors when all was said and done.
Boeing says 70% of the 787 has been outsourced; rival Airbus is relying on subcontractors for about 50% of its A350 plane, now in development. "This farming-out of the airplane's construction is revolutionary," says Richard Aboulafia, vice president at Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm.
Revolutionary! Contracting was done with American, Korean, Japanese, French, Italian, German, and Australian companies among others, and each of these subcontracted the actual labor to the usual suspects – Eastern Europe, China, Mexico, South America, and the like.
Unfortunately Boeing is starting to realize that outsourcing and cheap labor are good at making really inexpensive disposable goods. Consumer electronics. Clothes. Shoes. Toys. It's not so good at making the most complex machines ever devised by mankind, which happen to have a very low tolerance for system failures. If your Reeboks fall apart or your Blu-Ray player craps out, you're probably going to be irritated. If the electrical subsystems on an aircraft stop working, you're probably going to be dead. Yes, aircraft like this have redundant systems and not every failure results in a catastrophe. But we're not talking about a new iPhone here, where the attitude in development can be, "Just release it and we'll shake out all the bugs in the first year."
The issues with this airplane should not be overblown, but they should not be interpreted solely as problems with one product from one company. This is an important example of the limited benefits of outsourcing and other "globalization" practices. As I've said many times before, it makes things cheaper. That's what it does. That's all it does. It does not make things better, safer, or even necessarily faster. It's merely a way to pay fewer people in high-wage countries as a means of maximizing profits. The idea that Boeing would assemble a bunch of components made by hundreds of different contractors into the most technologically advanced airliner in the world shows how little value is given to quality and safety in comparison to penny-pinching.