Boeing 737 MAX - Software Outsourcing Criticized
Written by Sue Gee   
Wednesday, 03 July 2019

After more software flaws were discovered in the Boeing MAX software last week, it has emerged that the software was developed at a time when Boeing was laying off experienced engineers and pressing suppliers to cut software costs.

boeringmax

Boeing's 737 MAX jetliner has been grounded since mid-March after two crashes that killed 346 people in incidents linked to cockpit software. Last week another problem in the MAX software was revealed which will extend the length of time needed before flights can resume.

In a widely syndicated article, Bloomberg's Peter Robinson, suggests that outsourcing to engineers paid as little as $9 USD per hour as part of Boeing's cost-cutting effort contributed to the flaws in the MAX software.

The Indian company at the heart of the allegations is HCL Technologies, which was previously Hindustan Computers, which has offices in Seattle as well as in Chennai and Bangalore. Cyient, formerly Infotech, is also named as a Boeing supplier for design, stress analysis and software engineering and software for flight-test equipment.

While Boeing claims that it  did not rely on engineers from HCL and Cyient for the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, believed responsible for both the Lion Air crash last October and the Ethiopian Airlines disaster in March, Robinson argues that there is evidence that critical software for the MAX system was outsourced. In particular he quotes from a resume posted by an HCL employee on social media:

"Provided quick workaround to resolve production issue which resulted in not delaying flight test of 737-MAX (delay in each flight test will cost very big amount for Boeing)." 

Robinson also heard from former Boeing software engineers about cost cutting measures that lead to senior engineers being laid off in favor of outsourcing.  Rick Ludtke, a former Boeing flight controls engineer laid off in 2017, told him:

"Boeing was doing all kinds of things, everything you can imagine, to reduce cost, including moving work from Puget Sound, because we'd become very expensive". 

Mark Rabin, who had worked in a flight-test group that supported the MAX before being laid of in 2015 had recounted that at a meeting he attended a manager had claimed that Boeing didn't need senior engineers because its products were mature, commenting:

 "I was shocked that in a room full of a couple hundred mostly senior engineers we were being told that we weren't needed." 

Rabin also described how HCL in Seattle employed recent college graduates and that while they were typically designing to specifications set by Boeing:

it was far less efficient than Boeing engineers just writing the code and frequently took many rounds going back and forth because the code was not done correctly."

Robinson pointed out that cost cutting wasn't the only rationale for outsourcing its software development, supporting Indian firms in this way also allowed it to win contracts for for Indian military and commercial aircraft, such as a $US22 billion one in January 2017 to supply SpiceJet.

In response to Peter Robinson's article, the Indian IT sector has complained it is being unfairly targeted for Boeing's technology issues. Sangeeta Gupta, Senior Vice President, of Naccom, which represents the industry tweeted: 

“These claims are vicious and lack any veracity. Indian tech is the favourite whipping boy for any issue that goes wrong, otherwise it is projected as still being in a labour arbitrage model with no value add.” 

A spokesperson for Cyient said.

“As a company, we place great emphasis on domain and industry knowledge and hire from the best talent pool available in the local markets. This includes 1,000 engineers we have hired in the United States. Most of our engineers come with years of experience with leading aerospace OEMs and system providers.” 

However, the situation with Boeing MAX software serves to indicate that outsourcing safety critical software to third party suppliers runs a risk in terms of reputation that outweighs and cost saving consideration.

boeringsm

More Information

Indian IT firms unfairly targeted in Boeing 737 Max fiasco, says industry

Boeing’s 737 Max Software Outsourced to $9-an-Hour Engineers

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 03 July 2019 )