Engineered products range from tiny ones with only a few distinct parts to huge ones with literally millions of parts, thousands of subassemblies, and a complex interplay between electrical and mechanical design. It’s not exaggerating to say that for these larger projects, thousands of engineers worked directly and indirectly on them, bringing them to reality, spending countless hours wrestling with design details, issues, and tradeoffs, and likely even arguing about what approach to take to solve multifaceted problems.
To say they are “putting their heart and soul into it” may be a cliché, but it is a very accurate one on these mega-projects. Nonetheless, the resultant products sometimes don’t survive the rigors of the market, and the production run gets scrapped, built units get sold off (sometimes through discounters), or their fate is not publicized.
Such sinking into oblivion quietly is certainly not the case for the 550-passenger Airbus A380 superjumbo airliner, Figure 1. Introduced in in 2007, this behemoth is the largest standard-commercial passenger jet ever developed. Its development cycle and operational date roughly paralleled the 787 Dreamliner from archrival Boeing, Figure 2. The 787 carries fewer passengers (335) and does not need special airport facilities as the A380 does as a consequence of its superjumbo size and double-decker configuration.
The Airbus A380 superjumbo carries up to 550 passengers in a two-deck arrangement, but the market rejected its size and operating-route realities. (Image source: Airbus S.A.S.)
Despite serious early operational setbacks due to problems with the lithium-battery package, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has seen wide acceptance. (Image source: The Boeing Company)
Forward to the present, and the Airbus A380 has done poorly in terms of market acceptance while Boeing has delivered nearly 800 787’s as of December 2018, and despite a very nasty set of battery-related problems soon after it entered service. Airbus once planned to build more than 40 A380s per year and production but only reached 30 aircraft annually at its peak; only a dozen A380s were assembled in 2018. Airbus has stropped taking A380 orders and has cancelled further production once the current batch of orders is completed.
There are a variety of reasons for this, and business experts will undoubtedly use the development of the aircraft individually as well as their competitive pairing as case-study material. I won’t go into the market and business details here; there are already many reasonably insightful discussions of what went wrong and right.
But in all the reports and explanations I saw, one fact really hit me: although they are just a little over a dozen years old, some of the early A380s are being scrapped and scrounged for parts. This article in The Wall Street Journal was blunt: ‘”Singapore Airlines Ltd., the first airline to operate the superjumbo, has retired its first two A380s. The aircraft, now parked in France, are being sold for scrap.” Note that they are not being relegated to long-term storage for eventual re-sale or use; they are being stripped and tossed into a dumpster (albeit a very large one).
In a word: “ouch.” That news has to hurt if you were involved in any aspect of the aircraft’s development from design to prototyping, test, and manufacturing. Such a public and visible diminishment of the results of a project that was once hailed as a “golden” top priority, and which you were proud to be part of, must be a real hit to the gut.
Officially releasing a product when it won’t be a winner is a risky business. Many years ago, I worked at a well-known semiconductor company where the founder was still company president. He was passionate about the products, the company, the employees and yes, the customers. At one annual employee meeting, he reminded the design engineers and marketers of an important rule (I am doing this from memory here, of course): If the day before you formally release a product, you don’t think it will be winner due to a shortfall in a key spec, production and test costs, or a change in the competitive situation, just cancel it.
Why? Yes, you are personally heavily invested in it, and a lot of money and effort has already gone into its development and qualification, but those are “sunk” costs. The on-going costs start to flow after the product is released. If doesn’t do well yet has some customers, you still have to spend money for production, test, and stocking; for applications support; and for many ways needed to support any products; you can’t tell a customer “sorry, it’s your tough luck, you bought a product which we are abandoning early in life, so we won’t help you anymore.”
Obviously, Airbus did not have this choice, for several reasons: they had invested billions, and they certainly received “promises” from prospective airlines before they committed to the A380. But promises are not purchase orders, and the aircraft-market dynamics and preferences changed in the decade between A380 project initiation and its availability. It’s not the fault of the designers, as they largely delivered what they set out to do, despite countless technical and manufacturing problems that had to be resolved.
Seeing your project, one to which you have dedicated years of your life to bring to market, sold for scrap is a harsh metric on the chance any new product takes when it finally reaches the market. It’s certainly not an indication of the quality of the design (in many cases) but it says that sometimes a product just isn’t what the market wanted in its time window.
Have you ever had a project scrapped late in the development cycle, or soon after its release? What happened to its engineering and support teams?
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