From the discussion that ensued regarding my “diesel vs hybrid” post, it seems like I didn’t clearly make my point. That’s not terribly surprising, since I didn’t state it and really didn’t know what it was when I was writing. In any case, I did not mean that there were no solutions to the many and sundry problems facing us as pilgrims in the 21st century. What I did mean is that the problems are complicated and the solutions will likely be just as complicated. Simple solutions often only address a single symptom of a complex problem and in doing so, create or aggrivate additional problems in the process.

That the problems we face are both complex and interactive is not a cause for despair. Let me explain by analogy. Krista joined me for a business trip I made to Pennsylvania last week and we traveled on Southwest Airlines. I love Southwest, but because of the restrictions on long-haul fights from Dallas Love Field (take any discussion of that topic to its own thread please), it is impossible to get to most places on the east coast without making a lot of stops along the way. In our case, we flew from Dallas to Philadelphia, with stops in Tulsa, Kansas City, and Chicago along the way. On the return, we skipped the Tulsa stop and traveled directly from Kansas City to Dallas.

All of this taking off and landing started me thinking about the 737, so consistent with the level of geekness to which I aspire, I started surfing the web for information. On the way to the bit of information I wanted, I discovered that Boeing started the design studies for this aircraft in 1958. The first one took flight on April 9, 1967. After the requesite testing, Lufthansa launched the first commercial flight on February 10, 1968. So it was ten years from the realization of a need to the manifestation of a solution to meet that need. Ten years … that’s almost two US senate terms, more than two presidential terms, and five terms in the US house. Complex problems require complex solutions, and those take time to develop.

The thing I was really trying to find out about this particular airplane, however, was how many parts it has. The current estimate appears to be about 367,000. Each of these parts was designed by a designer to perform a specific purpose. Not all, but many of these parts are critical to the successful performance of the aircraft. I bet my life on them eight times in the last week without even thinking twice about it.

Though the final assembly of the various subsystems resulting from all these parts takes place in a Boeing plant, many of the subsystems are not actually manufactured by Boeing. Here’s a partial list of subsystem manufacturers:

  • Fuselage, engine nacelles and pylons – Spirit AeroSystems (formerly Boeing), Wichita.
  • Slats and flaps – Spirit AeroSystems (formerly Boeing), Tulsa.
  • Doors – Vought, Stuart, FL.
  • Spoilers – Goodrich, Charlotte, NC.
  • Vertical fin – Xi’an Aircraft Industry, China.
  • Horizontal stabiliser – Korea Aerospace Industries.
  • Ailerons – Asian Composites Manufacturing, Malaysia.
  • Rudder – Bombardier, Belfast.
  • Tail section (aluminium extrusions for) – Alcoa / Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing, China.
  • Main landing gear doors – Aerospace Industrial Development Corp, Taiwan.
  • Inboard Flap – Mitsubishi, Japan.
  • Elevator – Fuji, Japan.
  • Wing Ribs – Kawasaki, Japan.
  • Fwd entry door & Overwing exits – Chengdu Aircraft, China.
  • Wing-to-body fairing panels and tail cone – BHA Aero Composite Parts Co. Ltd, China.

So, to fling me and a hundred or so new friends five miles into the air and bring us back down again safely, these 367,000 parts get assembled into subsystems anywere from Wichita, KS to Japan, which then make their way to Renton, WA to get hooked up together and turned into an airplane. The success of this endeavor depends on design and production engineers from multiple companies in multiple countires. Like me, people bet their lives, hundreds at a time, on the work of all these people. The amazing thing about it is that most of the time, it’s such a safe bet that we don’t even think about it. So ubiquitous is this risk that at any given moment, there are about 1,250 737s careening through the atmosphere of this planet. Every five seconds, there’s one somewhere in the world taking flight.

What in the world does this have to do with my initial comments about making cars go? Well, I’ve been talking about one product from one manufacturer. This is just one isolated example of humanity tackling a complex problem, developing a complex solution, and refining it to the point where hundreds of people at a time are willing to risk their lives on it every day. I think it’s a beautiful example of successfully applied human ingenuity to create a complex solution (did I mention the 367,000 parts of this machine?) to a complex problem. There are countless other examples from transportation to medicine. My point in giving this one is that humans are not incapable of solving complex problems. Why should we regard the problems of global hunger or energy crises any differently?

To summarize, I found a few very interesting things about making a Boeing 737 that may apply to a variety of problems we face:

  • it took 10 years from the initial studies to the first commercial flight – complex solutions to complex problems take time to develop.
  • the 737 incorporates subsystems manufactured by multiple companies on multiple continents – the solutions to the social and environmental problems we’re talking about will require more creativity and ingenuity than one person can muster, probably more than is available in a single company or even a single country. The path to a solution will require sustained cooperation in pursuit of a shared goal.
  • 367,00 parts – somewhere in the world, someone is making rivets or screws or some other fasteners that will eventually hold a new 737 together. At the end of their workday, they have a box of rivets or screws or some other fasteners that looks nothing like an airplane. However, because that person was awake, alert, and doing their job, I survived for hours at a time in a very unnatural and inhospitable environment (moving several hundred miles an hour five miles above the ground). Details matter.

If you’ve read this far, my hat’s off to you. That’s about all I have to add for the moment. If you’re curious to know more about the 737, all of the technical details about the Boeing 737 came from a very (almost disturbingly) informative Boeing 737 Technical Site by Chris Brady.

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