Posted by: Brian | November 25, 2009

Old School Smarter Product Fail

Lately, Rational and really, all of IBM has been talking about Smarter Products.  Smarter products, in an oversimplified definition, not sanctioned by anyone in marketing, are the next generation of products in which hardware and software come together to deliver more than a single purpose, stand alone product.   The combination of hardware + software makes these new products instrumented, interconnected and intelligent.  The simplest examples you might have heard are things like the latest smart phones or the latest advances of automobile technology such as embedded guidance and services like OnStar.

For the most part, this is simply a reflection of latest innovations in hardware and software.   However, integrated, smart products have been around for long time.  As an example, anyone who has been on a air plane in the last 50 years has been aboard a smart product.   But what happens when these smarter products fail?

Last week, a “glitch” in the FAA systems caused over 2,000 flight delays.  The impact went far beyond frustrating flyers, impacting military operations and costing the airline industry an estimated $100 million dollars.  All of this in a span of 4 hours.  The cause?  One circuit board.

The case highlights the importance of quality management, and the broadened scope of quality management in this new smarter world.  With Smarter Products, not only will testers be required to validate the functionality of software, they’ll need to validate the functionality of that software on its target platform.  And validation will need to be done on the hardware components that host the software as well.  One can easily point in this case to a single circuit board failure, but should there not – in a system of such importance – have been a software based failover diagnostic warning system?   The definition of smarter products focuses on products being instrumented.   As Michael Ball, a University of Maryland professor who specializes in aviation operations research noted, “A good communications system should have enough redundancy that a failure shouldn’t hurt it that badly“.

Granted, this is a 50 year old system.  And our ability to engineer smarter products has advanced significantly since this system was created.  Hopefully we can learn from this outage, and adjust our quality management techniques for smarter products to prevent this type of failure in the future.


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