After all, aren’t automakers and their extensive chains of suppliers fully aware of where each part is, and where it came from?
Component and parts traceability requirements today “are pretty standard,” says Whittier, who is chief operating officer of Morey, the electronics manufacturing service provider to the auto industry and other industrial sectors. “They’ve been around probably 20 years or longer.”
Nevertheless, glitches do occur, costing automakers millions of dollars in lost sales, inefficient repairs and long-term damage to brands. (Not to mention injuries and deaths that can result from defective parts that slip through the quality-control net.)
When it comes to addressing a defect, traceability is pretty much the whole ballgame. A bad ignition switch, for example, can affect several million vehicles. But when and where did that particular item enter the production stream? How many cars is it in?
Lacking such knowledge, the manufacturer could end up recalling far more units than is necessary to fix the problem. Perhaps the bad switch was only used in one month’s production, affecting, say, 100,000 vehicles. Better traceability allows the automaker to limit the window to just those vehicles that were impacted by the error.
In its role as a tier 2 supplier to automakers, Morey provides tier 1 manufacturers with full traceability data, Whittier says. It’s required to explain where the materials in question were purchased, into which components they were incorporated, and where they were produced, all the way down to supplying manufacturing codes and part numbers. That information is then passed on the ultimate manufacturer by the Tier 1 partner.
So when a recall goes wrong, and the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) is unable to quickly determine how, when and where a defective part entered the production stream, where does the breakdown occur?
Whittier believes it has to happen at the OEM level. It’s not for lack of sophisticated tracking and tracing technology. Even with the best and most modern of systems in place, sometimes the relevant information gets lost in the system. More often than not, it’s a matter of human error.
Time and again, major product defects and subsequent recalls have turned out to be the result of lax maintenance of quality-control standards, miscommunication between the many partners that make up an automotive supply chain, and, in some cases, criminal negligence. Certain executives have been found to have early knowledge of serious defects, but kept that information from other managers and the public out of a fear of a loss of profits. (Which, of course, ends up being far more extensive when their actions are uncovered.)
Morey demands the same degree of diligence from its own suppliers that customers require of it. A single part might contain 100 discrete components, each of which must be logged by date code, serial number and lot number.
For the most part, the relevant information isn’t conveyed in real time. Except in cases of a targeted recall, Morey ships out data in batches, usually once a week. But the information is always available when needed, Whittier says.
A tier 2 supplier like Morey can’t act to address a problem unless it’s first informed about it by the tier 1 partner, or perhaps the OEM. A red flag might get raised during the testing or assembly stage further down the line. How well the automaker deals with the crisis depends in large part on how quickly that message gets sent up the supply chain.
Of course, the best way to deal with defective products is to prevent them from entering the production line in the first place. Whittier says it starts with strict attention to quality at the design stage. Every part that gets shipped out goes through at least two rounds of testing. In addition, Morey is required to maintain extensive paperwork validating such criteria as temperature, humidity and material-flow rates. (Strict observance of environmental conditions is essential to the production of electronics.)
A relatively small failure rate — around a couple tenths of a percent — is inevitable in the testing phase, but unacceptable when it comes to actual production of the vehicle. Whittier says OEM’s quality standards are far stricter today than 30 or 40 years ago.
Still, the most careful testing of critical parts won’t prevent serious defects from occurring if the people in charge of the supply chain aren’t exercising proper diligence at each step of the way. No amount of technology or artificial intelligence in an automotive production line can make up for a failure to pay attention to the human factor.