Boeing sought lithium-ion battery advice of GM, Ford

SEATTLE — Boeing’s supplier of lithium-ion batteries for its 787 Dreamliners tightened quality checks after the planemaker sought advice from other companies that use the technology, said five people with knowledge of the matter.

Boeing tapped Ford, General Motors, General Electric, United Technologies and others to provide expertise after battery faults grounded the global 787 fleet on Jan. 16, said the people, who asked not to be identified as they aren’t authorized to speak publicly.

GS Yuasa, the supplier, has doubled the number of its tests on the advice of a “non-advocate review” panel created by Boeing with officials from some of the companies, one person said. Fixing the batteries is key to resuming 787 service, and Boeing faces penalties from the eight airlines that operate the 787s as well as those whose deliveries have been delayed.

The panel, along with engineers from Boeing, GS Yuasa and Thales SA “identified improvements that could be made to the battery, the battery system and the airplane installation that would provide three distinct layers of protection,” said Marc Birtel, a spokesman at Boeing’s commercial headquarters in Seattle. “Among the items in this comprehensive set of solutions were improvements to the production process.”

Automaker representatives on Boeing’s panel examined GS Yuasa’s testing protocol and were surprised to learn that more than 90 percent of the batteries were passing quality control, said two people with knowledge of the matter. In the electric- vehicle industry, that figure is around 60 percent, they said.

Yasushi Yamamoto, a spokesman at Kyoto, Japan-based GS Yuasa, declined to comment. The Japan Transport Safety Board said March 5 it had ended testing of the GS Yuasa batteries and hadn’t found anything “notably unusual.”

United Technologies, which makes the auxiliary power unit that connects to the batteries, is working with Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration, executives have said. Dan Coulom, a spokesman, said any aid provided doesn’t extend beyond the company’s role as a supplier.

Ford and GM declined to comment on assistance to Chicago- based Boeing. Ford Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally ran Boeing’s commercial jet unit when the Dreamliner was being developed in the mid-2000s.

Boeing “reached out to a variety of industry experts, including GE, but not limited to us,” David Joyce, CEO of GE Aviation, said in an interview last month. “They’ve assembled a group of very high-technology people to help them and just to share expertise.”

The National Transportation Safety Board opened a public docket Thursday regarding its probe of the fire aboard a Japan Airlines 787 at the Boston airport on Jan. 7, the first of two electrical faults that triggered the Dreamliner’s grounding.

Boeing is assembling upgrade kits to tweak the battery system as it awaits an FAA verdict on the proposed fix. Boeing Commercial Airplanes President Ray Conner presented a plan to regulators on Feb. 22 that included increased separation of the cells in the battery, extra monitoring by pilots and a stronger case with vents. The FAA is still considering that proposal.

The measures are focused on containing fires, even though the two-month investigation has yet to identify a root cause for the January faults. The 787 fire in Boston was followed later that month by a smoking battery on an All Nippon Airways jet that forced an emergency landing in Japan.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said he won’t let the jet fly again until he’s “1,000 percent sure” it’s safe.

The FAA’s grounding order was the first for an entire model since 1979, and prompted offers of support for Boeing from around the world.

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk said he was connected with Boeing’s chief engineer, Mike Sinnet, by Richard Branson, whose Virgin Atlantic Airways has 16 787s on order. Tesla builds the Model S electric sedan, which also uses a lithium-ion battery.

The 787 is the world’s first composite-plastic airliner and is also the first to replace the pneumatic system with an electrical one, which generates enough power to light 400 homes. It’s the only commercial jet equipped with the lithium-ion batteries, which are used for backup.

Boeing is working toward doubling monthly Dreamliner output by year’s end to fill a backlog of more than 800 orders for the plane, which starts at a list price of about $207 million.

— With assistance from Alan Ohnsman in Los Angeles, Chris Cooper in Tokyo and Craig Trudell in Southfield, Michigan.

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