The Digital Skeptic: Dreamliner Brings iPhone 'Reliability' to the Skies

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NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Uresh Sheth is like everybody else having bad dreams about the 787 Dreamliner: struggling with a crash course in keeping the Boeing (BA) wonderplane from, you know, crashing.

Sheth has a plum day gig analyzing mortgage-backed securities. But by night, starting back in 2008, the plane lover began collecting details on his passion craft in his blog, All Things 787 .

"What is fascinating about this plane is that it is totally different than anything in the past," Sheth told me.

Over time Sheth's meticulous collection of 787 Web factoids and active sources have created as valuable a picture of the project as I have found.

"Boeing really wanted to be a systems integrator with the 787. But that did not work out. So now they're also a manufacturer," Sheth said. "And the level of integration is so much more complex than anything out there."

Sheth's amateur 787-sleuthing puts the current Boeing battery crisis in a critical digital age context. Namely, that means the 186-foot, 502,500-pound flying machine is terribly similar to computers, cellphones or any other complex integrated hardware and software device:

Fabulous, but also fabulously complex. So complex that when things go south, one never really knows why.

Welcome to the dark age of digital aviation
Before you mistake the 787 Dreamliner for a mere plane, may I direct you to a 747-sized pile of white papers, case studies and academic literature Sheth has studied. Boeing made it clear early on that the plane was its transcontinental flight into tomorrow.

The craft would not only "bring the economics of large jet transport to the middle of the market." it would be built like no other. Forget pricey skilled labor handcrafting planes in a single factory in soggy Seattle. Oh no. The 787 would fly to the front of the outsourcing and Information Age manufacturing class by being built by a global army of brilliantly managed, interlocking experts. The company bragged that maintenance capabilities would be further enhanced by a library of cost-saving digital manuals and e-enabled engineers.

"We want it to be inexpensive for the airlines and safe for the passengers," said Molly Boose, technical fellow for intelligent graphics with Boeing Research and Technology in a company video .

And it all seemed like a brave new world of efficient air transport, save for one scrupulously well documented trend: Based on published documents, Boeing struggled mightily to manage the information needed to actually build the 787.

Lost in a cloud of data
The documentation of data gone wild with this plane is almost a cottage industry among journalists, analysts and academics. Serious A-list professors such as Ravi Anupindi of the University of Michigan, who did a fascinating breakdown on how sourcing thousands of cheap assembly parts confounded Boeing.