Quality counts as US carmakers size up '80s

In the hood-to-hood competition between the US and foreign automakers, even neatness counts. Neatness, labeled "fit and finish" by the car builders, is what showroom stoppers perceive as quality. And quality --all aspects of it -- is what the US car builders are revolutionizing their industry to achieve.

The revolution is taking place simultaneously on four fronts: Product design, manufacturing processes, testing and inspection, and worker involvement. Generally, progress on each front is independent and somewhat irregular. However, every plant and supplier factory has felt pressure from at least one of those approaches.

All four fronts converge only in all-new plants producing all-new cars. It is in the new assembly plants that the departure from traditional auto manufacturing is spectacular. Elsewhere, the changes are more subtle.

Sometimes radical design changes are deeply obscured. Design can thwart misfits by shaping parts to make poor alignment during assembly a total impossibility. Sometimes, parts can be designed to eliminate pieces, a process that also eliminates rattles as well as misfits.

As part of the 1981 dodge pickup redesign, for example, the instrument panel was designed as a single plastic molding. There is nothing spectacular in its appearance; it looks just like any other instrumental panel.

But a single-piece molding includes integral defroster ducts and a number of other usually separate components.

While plastics are particularly adapted to this kind of no-rattle, no-misfit design, plastics can present another problem. The public still has a tendency to dismiss plastics as cheap substitutes. But in point of fact, many of the new plastic compounds, particularly those bearing fiber reinforcement, are more expensive than the materials they replace. They also are usually lighter, stronger, and more durable.

(It is significant that General Motors uses plastic springs, not on a low-cost car, but on the prestigious Chevrolet Corvette. The lighter, quieter, more durable single-piece semi-elliptic plastic springs replace the multileaf rear steel springs.)

Part of the design revolution is the consideration of manufacturing processes (the second front) at ever-earlier design states.

One of the new ways of doing business at Chrysler brings process and design together at the very beginning of the product cycle.

An engineering and manufacturing feasibility committee (composed of people from engineering, manufacturing, purchasing, and service), plus a fit-and-finish committee (similarly staffed), now assess design progress almost constantly.

Feedback from the manufacturing process influences redesign of existing or carryover parts, too. For instance, simply adding well-conceived tabs to mating parts can be enough to correct poor fits.

Perhaps the biggest revolution is quality improvement has come from changes in the manufacturing process itself. There are entirely new disciplines in welding, coating, fastening, forning, and otherwise manufacturing car parts.

Many of these new methods rely on higly sophisticated electronic controls instead of human eyes and hands. Instead of counting on human assemblers to join parts correctly, the industry increasingly relies on machinery for help.

There is a vastly increased use of unmanned tools. This is the most obvious difference between the old and new plants. It is also a leading reason for the higher productivity of newer Japanese plants. Their developing program is called MUM, for methodology for unmanned manufacturing.

This advanced tooling is also one of the reasons for the $80 billion cost of the industry s rebuilding program. New methods don't lend themselves to old plants -- and many US auto plants date back to the 1920s.

Thus, when an all-new product is designed, it's designed now for the new machinery. In the Chrysler K-cars, for example, 98 percent of the body spotwelds are done by automatic welders -- robots, if you please. They aren't absent on Mondays and don't get distracted and skip a weld that turns into a squeak 40,000 miles later.

On the third front, inspection and testing, the methods have made headlines. Ford, for example, shut down the production line last summer after turning out 5 ,000 Escort/Lynx engines. Those engines then were torn down by the very people who built them.

They found a few things that warranted changes in the way they were doing their work. The reinspected parts were put back in storage and the line turned back on to start all over.

General Motors established a complete production line for its X-cars, ran a long series of pilot-production modes, and then tore the line down and tested the cars.

The line was rebuilt in a different plant to begin production on schedule but only after valuable road tests of the production cars.

What warps the normal perception of quality in the auto business is the incomprehensibility of the numbers.

A thousand cars with similar failures are quite enough to ruin a car manufacturer's reputation for quality (as well as other phases of its reputation , if the failures are sufficiently spectacular and newsworthy.)

Yet that number of failures is only one-tenth of 1 percent of a million-car production run. Where most manufacturers would consider a 99.9 percent acceptance rate as impossibly good, car manufacturers can't these days. Quality that poor is bad enough to force a massive recall under present rules if the defect is safety-oriented.

Perhaps because it knows him best, the American public blames the American worker for poor quality; the automakers don't. Nonetheless, they've introduced some bizarre programs to help him do a better job.

GM vice-president H. L. Smith is one of those who wants to "put to rest the grossly unfair myth that the American worker can't build quality."

Mr. Smith asserts: "It's more often the basic system or design that is at fault -- and it is management's job to take the responsibility for fixing those problems by creating systems that allow the workers to build quality products."

The GM executive is in charge of the power products group which includes Detroit Diesel Allison, where a new 8.2-liter diesel-engine plant illustrates what he means. The plant has a nonsynchronous conveyor system.

Instead of a single line moving at a fixed rate, there are many smaller sections in which the workers control the movement of the line. A worker has to push a botton to move the work on to the next station.

Other production workers are deeply involved in programs -- many of them joint union/company -- aimed at closer quality control. It's becoming almost common for workers to contribute their ideas during preproduction pilot runs on the assembly line. And cross-plant training has become a reality as well.

Chrysler sent Detroit workers to the Omni/Horizon plant in Belvidere, Ill., to learn K-car production methods. Ford sent workers from the Escort/Lynx plant in Metuchen, N.J., to Wayne, Mich., for hands-on operations during preproduction pilot runs.

In perhaps the most bizzare United Automobile Workers/auto industry joint effort, there are several plans in the works for quality-control programs in which the workers themselves initiate an assembly-line shutdown when a quality problem appears that could affect subsequent operations.

In an industry where union and company are not famous for deep and mutual affection, and where the continuity of the assembly line is considered inviolate , such plans -- most of them admittedly still in the formative stage -- must be considered as nothing less than revolutionary.

There's a lot of that going around in the car business these days as Detroit carmakers try hard to catch up.

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