Aircraft Wing Failure (and Why Business Definition Standards are Essential to Information Governance)

Mark Atkins, Intraversed


I’ve been in Information Management for most of my adult life, although I didn’t realize it when I started my first job in my early twenties performing inventory management for a retail organisation. Later, in the mid 80s, I worked for an aircraft manufacturer. My job there involved assigning identification numbers to raw materials – everything from sheet metal to bags of rivets and fasteners to avionics – and tracking their use against each manufactured component of the aircraft. Similar to data lineage, this requirement covers the eventuality of a component failure in an operational aircraft, allowing traceability back to the faulty component batch and forward to other aircraft using components from the same batch.

But my story here is about the aircraft design, in particular, wing design.

Aircraft Wing Failure and Business Definition Standards Essential to Information Governance

Aircraft Wing Design

An aircraft wing, ignoring the flaps and other control surfaces, consists basically of three things: the spar, which runs the full length of the wings and carries the weight of the plane when flying and the weight of the wings when on the ground; the ribs, which create the airfoil shape of the wing and are perpendicular to the spar – think of the spar as like a rigid backbone with the ribs evenly spaced along it; and the skin, which provides the surface of the wing and gives rigidity to the overall structure. In order for the wings to not be too heavy, the spar and ribs have lightening holes – holes designed to reduce weight but not affect strength. Also, compartments in the wing construction function as fuel tanks.

When the first wing to be completed was subjected to the necessary stress testing – making sure that it met its design objectives and was able to support the forces of flight – it failed, crumpling like a sheet of cardboard. So the engineers investigated and, after ensuring that the ribs, spars, skins and rivets had been correctly made using the correct materials, they decided that some of the lightening holes must be making the spar and ribs too weak. The design modifications were duly sent to the drawing office, new material was requisitioned, and the new components were manufactured, painted, inspected and assembled.

Structural Failure

Fast forward several months, many design changes and failed wing tests. I happened to be crossing the manufacturing floor after another failure. The engineers were stood around almost in panic: they had made every conceivable change; the wing design was not only still failing but was now also heavier than it should be due to the removal of lightening holes and use of heavier gauge metal; and the manufacturing was running way behind schedule and way over budget.

Enter the company founder and original designer of the aircraft. A brilliant man, John knew the aircraft design inside out, having built the prototype himself but was rarely, if ever, seen on the factory floor. The design could not be wrong as the prototype and a successful demonstration aircraft were both often seen flying at airshows. Having been called from his office, he was standing with the crowd around the test bed. I slowed as I passed in order to eavesdrop the conversation as the engineers were explaining the series of events. The answer from John was immediate as he looked at the crumpled wing. ‘You’re using the wrong gauge on the skin!’

In conclusion, the control of raw materials and component manufacturing was stringent but somehow a small change had crept into the design drawings. Perhaps it was an error by a draftsman or perhaps a miss keyed entry into the MRP system. Either way, the specification of the skin was incorrect, leading to many further changes to the specification of other components and, ultimately, to a very costly situation.

Information Governance and Business Definition

Let’s put the story into the context of information governance. The data management was as close to perfect as it could get with full traceability of all the data, analogous to the raw material and manufactured components. And the data governance was well implemented and managed, with rigid check and double check processes being carried out by the manufacturing staff (I’ll talk about the difference between governance and governance management another time).

However, the business definition, analogous to the design specification, was not sufficiently governed by the business, in this case the designer himself. Also note that a change to one definition (specification) affects the correctness of all interrelated definitions.

I have witnessed several examples of poor business definition causing wasted effort in, and even total failure of, business information projects. Though data definition standards and data governance have long existed, they can never address the root cause.

Any business glossary must have definition standards and associated information governance, which then become core to implementing other successful data and information governance activities.

The Intraversed® business definition standard, part of our Intralign products, is now in use by several Australian based organisations. Our Intralign® business encyclopaedia (combined glossary and artefact governance management) is the original, having been offered as a cloud-based solution since 2010.

Mark Atkins, Intraversed

Mark Atkins

Mark is a co-founder & Chief Development Officer at Intraversed, helping organisations establish the Intralign Ecosystem, an award winning information management & governance methodology, to achieve reliable information, stable tech spend & greater IT project success.

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