This post offers a pretty insightful look into the psyche of how auto makers come at creating a culture around product development. The thing that stood out to me is the whole Japanese focus on looking at engineering from a systems standpoint. Not a new concept, certainly, but definitely one we are hearing spades about as products, be it cars or aircraft, get more complex.
@Chuck -- in a nutshell "Those manufacturers, the Center says, tend to think in terms of systems, rather than individual parts." Wow, does this hit it right on the head. I've been teaching Systems Thinking to undergraduate future technical managers since 2000. The idea of "parts make systems" rather than "systems are comprised of parts" is something that takes quite a while to transform in our students. Not knocking 12-years of elementary and secondary school, but they too often take a bottom-up approach when it comes to teaching concepts -- picking up seemingly random concepts that are only integrated in the much higher grades, if at all. In my own experience, I didn't get the value of algebra, geometry, trig, and calculus until I took Differential Equations and applied it in my Physics and Engineering Mechanics courses.
One of the memes I use in my Systems courses is "Start from Scratch rather than Patch" -- bolting on components makes a product "multi-functional" but it does not make it "inter-functional". When each of the component parts is integrated into the design with an awareness of the other parts, the concept of "elegance" is allowed to emerge...
"Quality" is a misleading word. In manufacturing, Quality is conformance to specifications. So if your design specification is junk, you can make "quality" junk. And Defect does not equal Defective. "Defective" may mean 1 or 2 Major Defects, or possibly 4 or more Minor Defects.
Quality is also "in the mind of the beholder". I remember the story of a driver who was willing to wait 2 weeks for parts for his Mercedes - "a fine piece of automotive engineering", but complained that getting parts for his Dodge would take 2 days = "piece of junk".
I agree that engineers may be hampered by the limits set by upper management. I wonder who decided that the Pontiac Fiero, which I thought was supposed to be the Pontiac Corvette, would have a 4 cylinder engine. We called it "All show, no go".
@GlennA - Management was swayed by the late 1970's gas cruch and decided the Fiero would be a "fuel-efficient sporty commuter"... sort of the Pontiac Chevette, rather than the Pontiac Corvette... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pontiac_Fiero
@williamlweaver: Great comments on the importance of systems thinking. In failure analysis, there's a tendency to focus on the part which failed, rather than the mechanical system which it belongs to. People tend to ask, "What's wrong with this part?" rather than, "How was this part loaded?"
As a metallurgist, people often send me a broken part in a box and expect me to tell them why it failed. Sometimes, I might be able to find something (such low hardness or microstructural defects) which would tend to make the part more likely to break. But without understanding the application, I can't tell them why it broke. Finding a defect in a part is not the same as finding the root cause of a failure.
A consequence of this, as I've discussed elsewhere, is that the knee-jerk response to a part failure is to make the part stronger. This often results in a failure occurring somewhere else in the system, so the next part to break is also made stronger, and so on. Ultimately, it results in designs which are unnecessarily heavy and expensive, while underlying root causes are never addressed.
A Chinese friend of mine, who is a philosophy professor, says that Western cultures tend to be reductionist, while Asian cultures tend to be holistic. I think that reductionism (breaking things down into their simplest parts) is actually an incredibly powerful tool, but it needs to be complemented with a holistic (or systems) view.
@Dave Palmer, wise council. I'm often surprised by the reliance on reductionism here in the West. Perhaps it is my terminal degree in Analytical Chemistry that has taken me to the bleeding-edge of analysis so that I can appreciate the importance of system integration. There is often no better zealot for a cause than a convert, and I've been evangelizing Systems Thinking for some time. There is an amazing dichotomy in our culture. Those who can see Similarities among items that appear Different have a "Scientific" talent, while those who can see Differences among items that appear Similar have an "Artistic" bent. Scientists dissect to generate additional parts, while Artists integrate to create fewer wholes. We have a strong scientific / technical reputation here in the West, yet we are often also seen as being a hub of Artistic talent with Hollywood, Broadway, and Silicon Valley.
The magic happens when the Analyst and the Systems Integrator are talents that are developed within the same person, or at least the same team. Knowing when to view a problem from each reference frame is a valuable tool. I totally agree with your suggestion that optimizing the strength of a single part simply transfers stress to surrounding parts, which in turn, fail. It's amazing how the Systems View can be used for all manner of systems; mechanical, electrical, biological, and philosophical.
Ironically, the process of Systems Thinking has been Analyzed into its parts in an attempt to standardize and optimize it within the Business Schools. All of their proprietary terminology and paradigms have made it appear specialized, wonky, and niche. Perhaps if the Scientists and Engineers rescue Systems Thinking from the MBAs, it would have a better chance to gain popularity...
Chuck, given what you said, it is interesting to note that the differences in overall quality that I have seen are miniscule. The Consume Reports methodology is tailored to their own measurement systems. I have in the past picked products (not including cars) that were not high in their estimation, but that worked great for me and others who had them.
I prefer those measures that track actual reported defects over time. In those, as I mentioned, the probablity of experiencing a defect with any of the automobiles offered today is much lower than it was ten or twenty years ago. In addition, the difference in manufacturers rates of defects were close to zero.
I like a well laid out system as much as anyone else. On the other hand, for consumer level products, it is the results that count. Just listen to Car Talk on NPR. Most of the people who call in have foreign made cars that are older. They have problems. A car won't last forever without a lot of work. I know, I started out with small English sports cars made in the 1960's. Fun, stylish and incredibly unreliable. We often said that those parts we had the most trouble with were designed by the junior engineers. There were other parts that would last forever.
Naperlou, I agree that the differences in reliability are not all that great. Ovr the past 20 years, all automakers have improved. Twenty years ago, you could expect a vehicle to go 100,000 miles or maybe 120,000. Now I have two cars that have more than 160,000 miles on them. Now if they could only close the gap between bottom and top.
Another issue that follows due to cost reduction is life expectancy. This is a two sided benefit to the automakers in the USA. One side of it is cheaper materials meaning a lower cost to make an automobile. Price reduction to cost savings is not in par either. Most of the cost savings go to the automaker. The other flip side of the coin is the life of the product is reduced. And USA automakers see this as opportunity gained because it means more replacement parts for the cars already in sold.
Complexity of design is also an intended feature. I have had several US made cars and a Toyota. To do simple maintenance sometimes on the US cars is so frustrating you are always tempted to go to the dealer. Try changing the thermostat on an impala 2001. Also to remove the tensioner for the belt on a corolla 2005 you have to lift the engine block by half an inch???? Of course I just cut the bolt instead and torqued another bolt that was half an inch shorter. I can do that because I have vibration experience. It's actually my specialty and I know that bolt will not loosen due to vibration. Average Joe usually does not carry this knowledge around and will be forced to send it to a dealer.
If you want to get an idea of how convoluted GM is regarding engineering vs. management, read the book "All Corvettes are Red" by James Schefter. It's about how the C5 (1997) Corvette came into being - and how it almost never existed.
A lot of the C5 had to be built in secret - even from GM.
After reading this book, you will appreciate just how astounding it is that GM is able to build anything at all, let alone Corvettes.
Although this book was written many years ago, looking at the present crop of crap from GM and others, I doubt much has changed. I'm sure many of the other manufacturers have similar issues.
The book is a graphic picture of what happens when bean counters run a company instead of people with a passion for what they produce.
In the case of the Corvette, passion won, but only barely.
While many of the posts are very analytical in nature, I would add one observation, which I'm not injecting in a flippant manner. When one drives down the street, on the boulevard, or the highway, or the interstate, and one observes the autos in the adjoining lanes, what does one see? They see a lot of American vehicles that aren't the latest off the showroom floor. Yet, in your observations, how many vaunted Mercedes Benz or BMW vehicles of 5 or 10 or more years past do you count? Certainly nowhere near the number of 5 or 10 year old Chevrolets, Fords, Dodges, Plymouths, etc.
While my analysis may not be a classic statistical study, it sure does prove a point........ American vehicles ain't as bad as some of the pundits would have us believe!
@Dave Palmer >A Chinese friend of mine, who is a philosophy professor, says that Western cultures tend to be reductionist, while Asian cultures tend to be holistic.<
Based on this article, that certainly seems to apply in the automakers culture. But I believe that tendency is more pronounced in the medical viewpoint than anywhere else.
My wife recently had her gall bladder and then her appendix removed within a span of a few months. I told her that something her system isn't working right, but who do you go to see about your body as a system in our standard medical community? She ended up going to an accupuncturist who told her that her liver is overloaded and out of sync. She's been working to clean out her liver and many of the symptoms she's had for several years, that our regular doctors have had difficulty finding the root cause to, have begun to disappear. The accupuncturist was able to tell my wife the symptoms she had been experiencing several years ago, and why she was having them, in less than an hour. My wife had been going to doctors about those same problems for years, with the result that later on the "bad parts" were removed.
@williamweaver - I believe you nailed it that the magic happens when we can view a problem from both aspects, both reductionist and holistic. Unfortunatley, I think the Western mindset has a long ways to go before the acceptance of a holistic approach is commonplace. Although the world is changing ever faster...
I know that this comment doesn't fit neatly under this article's topic, but I'm going to gripe anyway. My 1984 Honda CRX got better gas mileage than any cars built today. It got between 45 and 50 local and 58 to 61 on the highway and it had a kludge carburetor setup. We're past peak oil, and the car companies can't produce far better mileage with today's far more sophisticated technology? Come on!
Whining about "quality" continues to miss the bigger problem, that we are wasting resources that carry very heavy consequences. But as most Americans don't believe in anything other than failed free market ideology, I suppose the fact that today's cars are worse performers than a 1984 design doesn't matter in their minds. After all, CEOs drive teir engineers to meet customer demand and customers only complain about high gas prices because they're clueless.
Failed free market? The auto industry hasn't operated in a free market in decades. If it did I might be driving a diesel car getting 100 mpg burning fuel made from garbage squeezings. Regulation stifles innovation.
Regulation is a double-edged sword, but when applied correctly produces better results than a free market, as the market is people and they don't care about consequences, until it's too late.
The fact is that free market theory is a failed theory is proven by the existence of financial crises and bubbles. This is simply fact. Then there's your point that free markets really don't and can't exist, except in small arenas, precisely because people use their clout to improve their situation. Real human nature refutes ideology about human nature.
From what I've heard there are designs for power plants providing far higher mileage, but they are not produced for a number of reasons, including the fact that the market is more concerned about power and speed and having the government supply them with cheap fuel. Ah, the delusion and ignorance of the market! Therefore, there's little impetus for manufacturers to produce high mileage vehicles, which results in pressures to extract more of a finite resource at ever increasing financial and environmental costs.
I agree that we have failed policies in regulating the auto and energy industries but disagree with it being called a failure of the "free market". I call it the failed policies of greedy politicians making backroom deals with greedy industrialists with the "regulations" being used to squeeze out inovative competition.
One of the tenets of free market theory is that the freer the market, the more accurate the price. The problem is that free markets aren't controlled by the assumptions made by economists and so greed overpowers the mechanism that is supposed to provide negative feedback required to control prices. Therefore, greed and excessive optimism takes over and prices rise until collapse, which directly refutes free market theory.
Now that is in no way implying that a market must be heavily regulated, only to the point that it provides the required negative feedback to control what Greenspan defined as irrational exuberance. So, we need rational, good sense regulation in every market.
In line with the auto market, regulating that safety and efficiency be design considerations is good. Also, forcing manufacturers to correct design flaws is good too. the problem is doing it correctly to not stifle beneficial innovation.
Good points, Jeff. I think we're seeing that optimism now in the gasoline market. At-the-pump gas prices have gone up about 20 percent in the last coule months, while the cost of oil is only up about 6 or 7 percent. Right now a barrel of oil is only $103, while gas is pushing $4.00. Two or three months ago, gas was about $2.75 while oil was about $98.
Rob: Supposedly the "reason" why gasoline is so highly priced currently is because they're in the midst of the winter to summer changeover mode @ the refineries, AND because there are plans in place to PERMANENTLY close at least one (or more) domestic refineries, including one on the East Coast (NJ or PA?) facility.
However, we've also heard the news reports, etal. in which it has been shown that the industry is EXPORTING domestically-produced gasoline to foreign depots.
Is this a contrivance? Is it a conspiracy? Is it collusion? Who knows! But, we're all paying the price, NO pun intended!
Rob: And that's another reason why there is so much dissent in the discussion about crude prices vs. gasoline prices. The price of crude for the past several months has hovered around the $105/bbl. figure, yet the price of gasoline continues to rise at a rate of at least a nickel a week, sometimes more. There doesn't seem to be a coherent explanation for this; one could make an argument that this flies in the face of the "Law of Supply & Demand" of classic Economics 101. It almost seems that it is more beholden to the Law of Expedient Political Rhetoric".
I agree, Old Curmudgeon. I'm confused by the :speculation" agruement. I can understnad speculating on crude and thus driving up the price. But can you speculation as refined gasoline? The price of crude is not the problem. The price of crude has only gone up about 5%, while the price of gas has gone up nearly 30%. And that's in Europe as well, not just in North America.
Rob: I'm NOT a stock market maven myself. That's what I pay a financial whiz kid to do it for me, BUT it is my undestanding that there ARE speculators that will (hedge a) "bet" on just about anything that one can dream up, including where a fly will land at the airport in Singapore. So, it would seem to me that there also ARE speculators that can cause the price of gasoline & other direct petroleum distillates to fluctuate at will.
I guess you're right, Old Curmudgeon. Yet it does seem odd that the price of gasoline is moving at a different trajectory than the price of oil. By simple logic, at some point there would be some equalization.
Again, gasoline is not oil. Simple statement, but huge impact.
Gasoline price increases also reflect the increased refining to reduce sulfur content, increased use of refining catalysts to reduce gasoline contaminates in general, increased costs for additives to replace tetra-ethyl lead for octane improvement, and even mandated use of ethanol in gasoline.
In short, crude is generally still crude, but gasoline today is not the same product sold 30, 20, or even 10 years ago.
The price of refined products, (such as gasoline) is not necessarily directly related to the price of oil. Supply and demand for gasoline has to consider supply restrictions at all levels of production, not just crude supplies.
The price of oil can go down and the price of gasoline go up when, for one reason or another, refineries reach capacity. This can happen slowly due to the long term progressive increases in usage of gasoline vs the step function expansion of refinery capacity, or it can be sudden such as when major refinery accidents occur and capacity is lost.
It is even more complicated when you consider that gasoline is blended differently (due to EPA regulations) in different parts of the country and all refineries can't make all products. Supply and demand will cause the gasoline price in some areas to rise faster than others.
NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) and the EPA are making it more and more difficult to site new refineries in the US. We are producing more oil here and getting more the refining done offshore introducing even more potential restrictions to the supply chain.
Wow, a diatribe on economics that ignores the effects of regulation! Who'd a thought!
The reduction in fuel milage attributed to the auto makes and/or free market economics is actually driven by federal regulations.
First, the weight/complexity of vehicles is increased to provide myriad safety features from enhanced bumpers to airbags. All these things may be great, but they have a significant impact of vehicle performance.
Second, increasing compression ratios and combustion temperatures improves engine efficiency. Good for fuel mileage ... and for producing NOx (nitrous oxides) in the exhaust. In order to meet regulations limiting NOx emissions combustion temperatures are reduced in modern engines, compression ratios reduced, and catalytic converters used to burn off the unburned hydrocarbons. Those unburned hydrocarbons burned off in the catalytic converter are the fuel intentionally"wasted" to meet the federal emissions standards.
The regulations may be needed, they may be the right thing to do, but they have a cost that is frequently ignored. In this case, you want to blame the free market for something nearly entirely driven by government regulations.
One particularly key statement, as the article concludes, is copied and re-pasted here:
"In contrast, North American companies tend to appease stockholders who want short-term profits -- often at the expense of long-term reliability, he said. As a result, the focus shifts to cost-cutting, instead of to engineering and quality."
This statement applies to a bigger picture than automotive only.It is the absolutely a myopic American view of the dollar. When, oh when, will the American Corporation ever learn TRUE value-? The article speaks for itself. Systems Engineering, for example.
I agree with you, JimT. It seems that American companies are too often at the mercy of stockholders, causing CEOs to get fired frequently and causing executives to seek short term profits over long-term goals.
You couldn't have had a CRX as they were a two person vehicle. I'm sure that engineers can produce a powerplant/vehicle combo that can get far better than what we see now. the problem is the American public. Most people see cheap oil as their birthright and so auto makers are sort of coerced into producing poor mileage vehicles. Sort of because the bigger the vehicle, the greater the profit.
In the end it will be decided by the almighty dollar. Even as gas prices rise people will still by larger vehicles because that is what they choose to spend their money on. Even as gas prices rose last year, there was no great call to change what people were buying. And I don't see people changing what they drive because the industry tells them too. Dollars and cents will drive where we go. No pun intended...okay yes I did intend to put that pun there.
The assertion about designing for a three year product life is fairly accurate, at least it was for Chrysler while I was there. For starters, the top managers did seem to be accounting types, not engineers. But one indicator oof the problem was the reality that while the managers drove assigned cars so that, at least in theory, they could see any problems, all of those cars were inspected and serviced by mechanics EVERY DAY! The explanation that I got from our department manager was that nobody ever wanted thier part to be noticed as a problem by the upper management. I don't know what would have happened if there had been a problem noticed, but it would probably make somebodies career shorter or less rewarding. Now with that kind of culture and mindset, the policy makers never ever saw any reason to push for any changes.
One of the big weaknesses of having a company managed by accounting types is it comes down completely to measureable by dollars and cents. How can one eqquate the value of customer perception of a brand name? It cannot be quantified. But it is in my opinion more valuable than dollars and cents.
The other part about this is management must reward those that find and address issues rather than punish them by having them fix their mistakes while working on the other stuff they should be doing. From the top down bringing issues to the table have to be viewed as a call for help not a reason to punish
It is hard to beat the Japanese system methodology. This philosophy carries over to most items made in Japan not just cars. It allows for some additional tolerance with individual parts as long as the system works.
I agree that it is not just in the car industry. You can add electronics and now eve n appliances to that list of produccts that are manufactured that way. At least sort of. You do have to be aware that there are different Asian countries and I don't think they all have that same level of quality engineering. Especially, when it comes to the component level. Some of my largest headaches have come from Asian component suppliers.
It is agreed that not all Asian cultures have the same philosophy. Companies 5000 miles away are hard to hold accountable for quality issues and sometimes the companies have actually folded before the container arrives at its final destination.
Miller has it right about stockholders and the almighty quarterly profits drive. Monthly and quarterly short term profits are the main driver of about all upper management decisions made.IT is the greed thing, the same greed thast bought us the mortgage company bust and the toxic assets problems. Probably grred will destroy this great nation, unless it destroys one of the EU nations and we learn by watching. The problem is that greed and moral corruption are opposite sides of the same coin, and so it is not a large step from greedy decisions that may be legal to greedy decisions that are not legal. It sure sounds gloomy, doesn't it.
I have to admit that I'm okay with profit and even a little bit of greed. I think where so many companies fall short is in their focus on the short term. Too many CEOs fear a quick exit, so they focus on the short term and ignore the long-term consequences. I don't understand why a bond of trust between consumer and automaker -- built over a long period of time -- should be deemed less profitable.
The explanation for the increase in gas prices is probably similar to the explanation of why Dogbert,(evil HR director), in the Dilbert comic strip, explains why he does such evil things. The answer: "Because I can". Evil needs no additional motivation. YES, I certainly am being judgemental.
The problem is not that "we are addicted to oil", the reason is that we are quite attached to the degree of personal freedom that we have available to us by reason of our high level of personal mobility. That is, we can jump in our car and go almost anywhere at almost any time. In huge sections of the developed world you can't do that. As Americans, we are indeed addicted to personal freedom. Of course, that does include the freedom to do things that some say is not good for us.
Of course, on some rare occasions even engineers may make mistakes. That is what separates us from MBAs; they always make mistakes.
"Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm -- but the harm does not interest them, or they do not see it, or they justify it becasue they are absorbed in the endless struggle to thnk well of themselves." T.S. Eliot
IrishMuse: you make an interesting assertion about those who cause harm. But I don't think that it is because it does not interest them, but because they really don't care if they do harm. Of course there is also a large portion who don't see that the harm that they do is actually harm. They lack the gift of having a correct grasp on reality.
I retired from one of the "majors" in the appliance industry. The company I worked for had component managers for: elements, gas-fired burners, platform structures, maintops, electronic controls, etc etc. These engineers knew their components but it was up the to platform manager and program leaders to "mesh" these components into the proper package to provide a workable appliance. All too often, that did not happen with any real ease. Schedules were king and designs sometimes suffered due to unrealistic schedules. There did not seem to be the "systems" approach to an overall assembly of components. The products were safe but not very competitive with West European designs--at least when reliability was concerned. It seems to me we are looking at a very similar problem with the American Auto industry.
My wife, my sons, and I drive cars based on the B5 generation (late 1990s/early 2000s) Audi A4 platform. Having previously owned exceptionally DIY-friendly late 1980s Chrysler K-cars and K-car derivatives, we initiallly needed some time to find our way around the VW/Audi engine compartment, but now these cars no longer seem so intimidating. Having access to superb online discussion forums at Passatworld.com, vwvortex.com, and several Audi enthusiast websites has helped immensely, and my Vehicle Control Diagnostic Software has helped me pinpoint problems efficiently.
German cars generally deliver a superb driving experience, but they are like spoiled children, requiring syntheic motor oil, Tier 1 gasoline, biennial brake fluid changes, and fastidious maintenance. VW/Audi cars have a specific weakness in rubber parts, such as seals, CV boots, and vacuum hoses. If you want a car which thrives on neglect, get a Toyota Corolla or Camry or a Honda Civic or Accord.
I like things that are low maintenance. Something easy to please, does not require constant pampering, attention or gifts or things done "their way or no way". Easy-going, unselfish and usually a joy to be around. Subarus Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas sound like my kind of car.
A half century ago, cars were still built by people, not robots. Even on some of the countryís longest assembly lines, human workers installed windows, doors, hoods, engines, windshields, and batteries, with no robotic aid.
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