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!
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.
@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...
@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.
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.
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.
@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
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