The software at the heart of the Boeing 737 MAX crisis was developed at a time when the company was laying off experienced engineers and replacing them with temporary workers making as little as $9 per hour, according to Bloomberg.
In an effort to cut costs, Boeing was relying on subcontractors making paltry wages to develop and test its software. Often times, these subcontractors would be from countries lacking a deep background in aerospace, like India.
Boeing had recent college graduates working for Indian software developer HCL Technologies Ltd. in a building across from Seattle’s Boeing Field, in flight test groups supporting the MAX. The coders from HCL designed to specifications set by Boeing but, according to Mark Rabin, a former Boeing software engineer, “it was controversial because it was far less efficient than Boeing engineers just writing the code.”
Rabin said: “…it took many rounds going back and forth because the code was not done correctly.”
In addition to cutting costs, the hiring of Indian companies may have landed Boeing orders for the Indian military and commercial aircraft, like a $22 billion order received in January 2017. That order included 100 737 MAX 8 jets and was Boeing’s largest order ever from an Indian airline. India traditionally orders from Airbus.
HCL engineers helped develop and test the 737 MAX’s flight display software while employees from another Indian company, Cyient Ltd, handled the software for flight test equipment. In 2011, Boeing named Cyient, then known as Infotech, to a list of its “suppliers of the year”.
One HCL employee posted online: “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).”
But Boeing says the company didn’t rely on engineers from HCL for the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which was linked to both last October’s crash and March’s crash. The company also says it didn’t rely on Indian companies for the cockpit warning light issue that was disclosed after the crashes.
A Boeing spokesperson said: “Boeing has many decades of experience working with supplier/partners around the world. Our primary focus is on always ensuring that our products and services are safe, of the highest quality and comply with all applicable regulations.”
HCL, on the other hand, said: “HCL has a strong and long-standing business relationship with The Boeing Company, and we take pride in the work we do for all our customers. However, HCL does not comment on specific work we do for our customers. HCL is not associated with any ongoing issues with 737 Max.”
Recent simulator tests run by the FAA indicate that software issues on the 737 MAX run deeper than first thought. Engineers who worked on the plane, which Boeing started developing eight years ago, complained of pressure from managers to limit changes that might introduce extra time or cost.
Rick Ludtke, a former Boeing flight controls engineer laid off in 2017, said: “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 here. All that’s very understandable if you think of it from a business perspective. Slowly over time it appears that’s eroded the ability for Puget Sound designers to design.”
Rabin even recalled an incident where senior software engineers were told they weren’t needed because Boeing’s productions were mature. Rabin said: “I was shocked that in a room full of a couple hundred mostly senior engineers we were being told that we weren’t needed.”
Any given jetliner is made up of millions of parts and millions of lines of code. Boeing has often turned over large portions of the work to suppliers and subcontractors that follow its blueprints. But beginning in 2004 with the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing sought to increase profits by providing high-level specs and then asking suppliers to design more parts themselves.
Boeing also promised to invest $1.7 billion in Indian companies as a result of an $11 billion order in 2005 from Air India. This investment helped HCL and other software developers.
For the 787, HCL offered a price to Boeing that they couldn’t refuse, either: free. HCL “took no up-front payments on the 787 and only started collecting payments based on sales years later”.
Rockwell Collins won the MAX contract for cockpit displays and relied in part on HCL engineers and contract engineers from Cyient to test flight test equipment.
Charles LoveJoy, a former flight-test instrumentation design engineer at the company, said: “We did have our challenges with the India team. They met the requirements, per se, but you could do it better.”