A step-change in mass production: turning quality control upside down and inside out

Motor vehicle assembling at AVA plant in Mombasa

Motor vehicle assembling at the Associated Vehicle Assemblers plant in Mombasa.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In your interesting piece last week on Alfa Romeo, you mentioned “the mass production habits of Fiat”, suggesting that meant a quality downturn. What defects does mass production cause?



Not so many these days because most modern cars are built by precision robots, and Quality Control (QC) advances first introduced by the Japanese have now been widely adopted across the Western World.

Two things mean the results will never be perfect: human nature and cost.

But it is now better recognised that the ‘quality’ of a finished product consists of many variable elements, such as the raw materials used, their conversion into processed materials, the engineering and machining of those into components, the design of how those components work (individually and collectively), the degree of “refinements” of the overall design, and how the whole thing is assembled, checked and adjusted…and so on. To that must always be added the human issues of emotion, skill and diligence, and the strategies of management, supervision, production flow planning, and, again, cost.

Cost of warranty

In the case of motor vehicles, all of those factors apply to several thousand different parts made in different ways out of different stuff – steel, other metals, plastics, rubber, glass and paint, all of which have potentially huge variations in base materials, processing, machining, designs and construction (assembly).

In the past, brands renowned for “quality” had to tick all those boxes to a high standard and invest in equipment and systems (and people) which could achieve that, and constantly monitor to ensure the target standards were consistently maintained. Some ticked more (or different) boxes than others. The Italians were world beaters in visual design but not so good at preventing rust. The Brits were able inventors but could be slap-dash assemblers.

The Czechs were widely respected as the world’s best mechanical engineers (until they were subsumed by totalitarian principles), and the mantle then passed to Germany, based on their precision, discipline and skills training. Within each national characteristic, different brands also had different priorities. And stand by for what India and China will do to themselves and for the world. Both have transmogrifying potential in what they have already done and what they might choose to do.

Such distinctions have swung and evolved through ups and downs over time, and in some instances become blurred by the conglomerate trends and badge-juggling of the global motor industry, in which accountants and marketers now outnumber petrol-heads. Some invested primarily to exploit their strengths, others to remedy their weaknesses. Two quite different “qualities”. And a billion different views on which is more important. Of course they all paid attention to all the elements, but mainly in terms of costs, margins and marketing strategy.

Quick final check

But generally, “Quality Control” used to mean a quick final check as an item left the production line. From there, cars either went to the finished vehicle park or were diverted down a “rectification” channel. A few samples of every mass production batch were more thoroughly checked and tested.

What puzzled the Japanese, as they planned to take on the export world, was how many of even the highest quality items (from ball-point pens to radio sets to cars) from the most prestigious Western brands still had plenty of warranty claims from consumers. That wasn’t just curiosity. Warranty claims are a disastrous inefficiency. The product has been shipped from factory to a wholesaler, distributed half way across the world to a retailer, been sold to a customer who is now disappointed and angry, and has to go all the way back down the same distribution chain for the manufacturer to repair or replace. The cost in money is not small. The cost in market reputation can be huge.

Prevention is better than cure

The Japanese question was that if you can make one perfect product, why isn’t everything off the same production line exactly the same? Why do some, or indeed any, go wrong? What variations were there between items that worked problem-free almost “forever” and those that failed inside a warranty period? And, more importantly, why were there any variations at all?

To answer that question, they moved their QC from the end of the end production to the beginning of the beginning and all the way through. In simple terms, they established the benchmark exactitude of absolutely everything, and wherever there was any variation from that, they chased down the Why? Why? Why? to stop it happening again. Everything from iron ore mining to steel processing to the makers of the machines that pressed body panels and lathed or forged engine parts, the height of stools workers sat on, the temperature of their assembly halls, how often they put on clean gloves!

They researched everything, exhaustively, to pin down where variations arose. And they believed, and acted on the results, however obscure they seemed. That exercise was expensive but it was not a cost. It was an investment that ultimately saved money, reduced price, and built market confidence. Globally.

The math of quality chains

If each item and process is 90 per cent right, you don’t get a finished product that is 90 per cent right. If there are two processes, the result is only 81 per cent. If there are three, then you end up with 73 per cent. If there are 10 processes at 90 per cent, the final product will be down to 35 per cent quality. Junk.

It was the same commitment to and confidence in blue sky research, unfettered by any previous presumption or preconception, that made Japanese manufacturers the pioneers of such things as fitting a car radio as standard instead of an optional extra, even in town runabouts.

Before the QC change, Japanese cars (and their other products) had a reputation of being cheap junk (rather as we now view almost anything Made in China). Today, Japanese products are renowned as the most dependable and reliable in the world. They have not claimed that quality. They have simply let market experience prove it. And their government has legislation that demands it. Chinese manufacturers operate under somewhat different instruction…so far.

Watch, especially, what they do with super-cheap micro cars, having learned some important lessons with their first pioneering foray into that new segment.

Anecdotal evidence

When the Japanese sent CKD kits to AVA Kenya for local assembly some decades ago, one of their “exact” measures was the symmetry of the body. For example, the diagonal measures from front left to rear right, and front right to rear left, had to be the same. A tolerance of up to 4mm difference was allowed. Anything more than that meant the body had to be rejected.

That wasn’t difficult. Their body panels and jigs were made to such high quality precision that the diagonal measures were invariably well within the limit.

Several makes from Europe, the US and elsewhere did not demand – or achieve – such precision. But AVA decided to try and meet the Japanese standard on everything they made. And with ingenuity and effort and sometimes great difficulty, they managed it.

When they tried to apply the same exactitude to Fiat Unos, the discrepancy was often more than 10mm, and however hard Kenyans tried they could not get it below 6mm. When they called technicians in Italy, Fiat were aghast and responded: “If you are getting that close, you are doing a lot better than us”.

Sausage principle

It is said that there are two things you should never watch being made: sausages and policy. Both have ingredients that you do not, or would rather not, know about.

In some respects you might want to add cars. I once spent an entertaining day in the rectification channel of the American Motors plant in Toledo, USA, where a well-known brand of 4WD is assembled.

Two things were unforgettable. First was the station that decided whether each vehicle could go to the finished vehicle park or should be diverted for rectification. The exact measure which decided that was: “Only faults that a customer will definitely spot and not be likely to tolerate.” The rationale: “No vehicle is perfect. Customers will expect some minor discrepancies or teething troubles, and might have them looked at when they go for first service. But if there is something unacceptable, they will not only bring that back for remedy under warranty, but then also list everything else that is even slightly wrong. And possibly change brands. So it is only the unacceptable faults that we are looking for and divert to be fixed.”

 Those were mostly things like paint blemishes (on the most conspicuous A1 surfaces only) or misfit panels (especially bonnet lids and doors, which were put right by burly blokes wielding cloth-wrapped two-by-two planks as levers to “bend” things into place).

Cost versus consequence

The epitome of quality in the motor industry has long been and remains Rolls Royce. Among many factors, two things especially set them apart. One, they are not mass produced. They are hand-built, and in most cases individually tailored to specific buyers.

Two, they set out to make the “perfect” car and do whatever is necessary to achieve that. Only then do they work out what it will cost to do so, and set whatever market price is necessary to achieve that standard.

Mass production works the other way around. Designers are given a market-segment final price target, and try to build the best car they can within that budget. To the overwhelming majority of motorists, quality is nice but price is crucial. To elite buyers, quality is essential and price doesn’t matter at all.

What the Japanese definition of Quality Control has achieved (and many, but not all, have progressively copied) is an extraordinarily high quality standard within mass production budget constraints.

The market verdict is plain to see, not just on our roads (count the proportion of Japanese cars) but also around the world (check the used car prices in, say, Canada, between, say, a Jeep and a Land-Cruiser).

Do you have a Motoring question? Email [email protected]