Engineering nightmares, fiascos, and disasters

  • #1
Ivan Seeking
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Main Question or Discussion Point

Personal stories or otherwise

The Denver airport luggage system

DENVER, Aug. 26 [2005]- Ten years ago, the new Denver International Airport marched boldly into the future with a computerized baggage-handling system that immediately became famous for its ability to mangle or misplace a good portion of everything that wandered into its path.

Now the book is closing on the brilliant machine that couldn't sort straight...

The premise of Denver's plan was as big as the West. The distance from a centralized baggage check-in to the farthest gate - about a mile - dictated expansive new thinking, planners said, and technology would make the new airport a marvel. Travelers who arrived for check-in or stepped off a plane would have their bags whisked across the airport with minimal human intervention. The result would be fewer flight delays, less waiting at luggage carousels and big savings in airline labor costs.

Tours that preceded the system's debut led invariably to an airport basement where 26 miles of track, loaded with thousands of small gray carts, sped bags up and down inclines as conveyor belts minutely timed by the computer deposited each bag in its cart at just the right moment.

"They were so proud of it," said Raymond Neidl, an airline-aerospace analyst with Calyon Securities in New York. "It's the one thing they wanted to show you."

But then the price tag ballooned along with glitches. Construction costs of $186 million were compounded at a rate of $1 million a day for months in 1994 when the airport's opening was delayed by baggage-handling failures. Tens of millions more have been spent in the years since for repairs and modifications.

United, Denver's busiest airline, has been using a stripped-down, simplified version of the network for its outgoing flights since the airport opened in 1995 - though "enduring" is probably the better word, since regular breakdowns have continued despite years of tinkering.

Automation never worked for incoming flights, whose baggage has been moved by handlers from the beginning. And no other airline ever tried to use the error-prone system at all...
http://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/27/national/27denver.html

THE BAGGAGE SYSTEM AT DENVER: PROSPECTS AND LESSONS
http://ardent.mit.edu/airports/ASP_papers/Bag System at Denver.PDF
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
863
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That's my airport! I never bring baggage when flying. I can say the rest of DIA is actually really well laid out.
 
  • #3
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Haha, we did a case-study on the Denver Airport fiasco for my software engineering course last semester, poor buggers.
 
  • #4
wukunlin
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dear oh dear...
 
  • #5
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I can't knock them for trying. What I don't understand is how they spent millions seemingly without a proof-of-concept.
 
  • #6
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I can't knock them for trying. What I don't understand is how they spent millions seemingly without a proof-of-concept.
Exactly, it sounds more like a bureaucratic nightmare then an engineering problem. The D.C. beltway is a similar problem. All the engineers said it would have problems, but the bureaucrats insisted they needed it anyway and went with the first contractor who claimed the problems were avoidable.
 
  • #7
BobG
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Exactly, it sounds more like a bureaucratic nightmare then an engineering problem. The D.C. beltway is a similar problem. All the engineers said it would have problems, but the bureaucrats insisted they needed it anyway and went with the first contractor who claimed the problems were avoidable.
This is typical. The shuttle design is similar. Management became so enamored by the idea of a reusable spacecraft that they forgot the reason for wanting a reusable spacecraft - reduced costs. The final design requirements seemed to be to preserve some measure of the reusable idea at any cost.

Once headed down a certain path, it just becomes really hard to pull the plug. But, there usually is an overall long term benefit for progress, just from the lessons learned from the first attempt or two.

Sometimes, the meaning of your life is to serve as a lesson to others. :rofl:
 
  • #8
wolram
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I remember a packaging machine my company designed for packing batteries, the whole idea for the machine came about because sample batteries we had sent to us where attractive
to magnetism, Imagine the chaos when the machine was installed and the batteries used where not attractive to magnetism.,
And there was no paper work that said they would be.
 
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  • #9
BobG
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Iridium satellite constellation and satellite phones.

By time they launched their entire 69 satellite constellation, the entire world of communications had changed.

In America, we built a network of ground based antennas for cell phones and had at least covered all the metropolitan areas that had the most customers.

Even in areas of the world where satellite phones were still the best option, flexible, lightweight, deployable satellite antennas changed the satcom world. Historically, it took huge antennas on the ground because you were limited to tiny antennas on the satellites. Now, the huge antennas can be on the satellites and the tiny antennas can be on the ground.

Iridium was an idea that was behind its times.
 
  • #10
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Yeah, you could put the Super Conducting Super Collider on that list. After it was canceled due to enormous cost over runs the state of Texas suggested using the billion hole left behind as a prison.
 
  • #11
DoggerDan
This sort of thing wouldn't happen in the diving world. Back when it did, divers took notice and refused to dive any untested rig on job sites.

It's still risky, but the risks are minimal compared to the early days.
 
  • #12
Ivan Seeking
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The Hubble optics problem.

A minor fiasco to which I was privy. Back when I was working as a support engineer, a customer from a major silicon wafer processing facility called with an emergency. They had a critical control system failure that was costing something in the neighborhood of $10K an hour. It got really ugly as we tracked the problem down to a highly specialized sensor that was about two weeks out - from Japan. This was nothing short of a disaster!

Keeping in mind that these guys were in the middle of a crisis, as I continued to interrogate them about their process to see what else we might be able to do, it quickly became clear that they weren't thinking clearly anymore. The point they were missing was that while automatic control of the system was quite challenging, in the end, there was no reason why a person couldn't simply monitor the system visually and press a button when needed. Cost of temporary solution: Approximately $30 per hour and a button. As I made this rather obvious point, my customer suddenly fell silent.
 
  • #13
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The power grid, itself, apparently, has an inherent Achilles Heel:

“We believe that the initiating event was some work one of our employees was performing at a substation,” Gross said. “What we’re not clear about was why whatever happened there ultimately spread so far.”

Power grids are supposed to be able to withstand loss of the most important piece of equipment or power supply, Matthew Cordaro, a former Long Island Lighting Co. executive based in Shoreham, New York, said in an interview today. The blackout suggests that grid equipment, design or operation still can’t cope reliably with high flows of power between states, such as between Arizona power plants and Southern California, he said.

Cascading Blackout

“Once this line went out, it cascaded and overloaded other lines,” Cordaro said. “It’s not supposed to happen.”
http://www.businessweek.com/news/2011-09-09/san-diego-utility-restores-power-to-california-households.html [Broken]

While the grid is supposed to be able to withstand the loss of it's most important part, some "unimportant" part seems to be able to shut it down. A butterfly flaps its wings in a substation, and major cities down the line lose power.
 
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