A Better Way To Check The Specs On A Boeing

AIRPLANES SUCH AS THOSE made by Seattle giant Boeing Co. are extremely complex feats of engineering, consisting of millions of parts and subassemblies. The task of maintaining such aircraft is daunting. Lists and drawings of each part are stored on microfilm--and that requires having bulky filing cabinets and mechanical film readers. Furthermore, each time technicians need information on a certain part, they must manually retrieve the correct cards and hand-load them into the viewer: a time-consuming task, considering that for airline mainstays such as the 747 series, it can mean thumbing through as many as 250,000 separate cards.

Now, all the parts information for Boeing planes has become available in digital form, through the company's new service called Reference Engineering Data Automated Retrieval System (REDARS). Replacing the more than 3 million microfilm cards is a "farm" of 130 write-once, read-many (WORM) optical disks. A technician at any airline can recall any one of the roughly 1.56 million aircraft-specific drawings on those disks by merely dialing into REDARS from a modem-equipped engineering workstation. The service is sold on a subscription basis to carriers that fly Boeing-made planes.

What took Boeing so long to join the networked '90s? The system, which runs on a complex of Unix-based computers, was available to Boeing's own employees as long ago as 1992. But only now, say Boeing officials, has the system been proven reliable enough to open up to customers, too.