In today’s society, products and reliability need to work hand in hand. However, with product progress and the advent of technology comes risk and sacrifice. Whether or not a company takes the right measures to ensure reliability is beyond the control of the consumer. But they are the ones who reap the problems of untested products.

Fortunately, as the consumer becomes inundated with consumer reports, the gap between consumer and company shortens, and the consumer becomes more aware of every aspect of production. It is here that product reliability exists at the forefront of the consumer’s mind. And it is here that product reliability reigns king.

With the media spouting stories about Toyota and automobile reliability nonstop, one must ask, where exactly does product reliability come into play? Is it on the assembly lines? On the lot? Or on the street, after the car has been purchased?

In an annual survey, J.D. Powers and Associates takes a look at both initial quality and vehicle dependability. Based on these results, they release a comprehensive vehicle list, ranking and rating overall product reliability. Traditionally, the list has favored import vehicles and manufacturers such as Toyota, but recently, the shift has been coming back to domestic. The gap is shortening.

Product reliability plays a huge role in repurchase intent, and manufacturers know this. “In the last three years, product reliability and durability has been in the forefront of manufacturers plans,” says Raffi Festekjian, director of automotive research at J.D. Power and Associates. Overall, quality is improving, and cars are breaking less. Components are lasting longer and this year’s results show significant gains compared to the 2009 study.

But it takes considerable time to positively change consumer perceptions of quality and reliability. Despite the studies, cars with certain stigmas will be overlooked, despite their reports of reliability. “It is important for manufacturers to improve quality and also to convince consumers of these gains,” says Festekjian. Even though results in product reliability show modest gains, many automotive companies struggle to shed the stigma of faulty parts and recalls.

Ford utilizes virtual reality tests to monitor parts at minimal cost. Source: Ford Motor Co.

Battling Stigma

In recent news, Toyota is has been struggling with this very problem. Known specifically for its quality methods and intricate Toyota Production System, which relies on each assembly member acting as his own quality inspector, Toyota will now have to battle a tainted image after a rash of recalls. But, can Toyota’s reputation as quality powerhouse withstand a few setbacks?

With January and February sales numbers for Toyota showing signs of slipping, Toyota turned to what it is known for best: reliability. In a recent study, predicts Toyota sales for the month of March to be up 30% over last March. This is no coincidence.

The J.D. Powers 2010 vehicle dependability study reports that Toyota continues to perform well in long-term dependability and garnered four segment awards. This is in part to Toyota’s commitment to quality and lean manufacturing.

“Toyota involves its team members by encouraging an active role in quality control, using employee ideas and opinions in production processes, and practicing kaizen-striving for constant improvement,” says Rick Hesterberg, assistant manager of media relations for Toyota.

General Motors (Detroit) has pushed through some quality issues in recent years themselves. But they are making strides to change things up. “Quality is a part of the entire process, and we include Six Sigma during every step,” says Lorie Cumming, executive director of global product development at GM.

GM employs a system they call the GM Global Manufacturing System. “We evaluate the car the same way a customer would and have come up with a standardized process for all employees,” Cumming says.

GM error proofs all the tools used so that when the second shift comes in, they will be putting in the same work as the first shift. “Our torque monitoring and infrared tools help the operator check the parts and ensure they are being applied correctly,” says Cumming.

GM also uses their On-Star system to run tests as the vehicle hits one of the many proving ground test facilities.

In the same manner, Ford Motor Co. (Detroit) has been overlooked for durability for years. But, as J.D. Powers survey results show, Ford has taken leaps to remedy the situation. With processes in place that include specific checks for every type of vehicle, Ford has taken quality seriously. Each and every part is checked both physically and virtually, and strict quality protocols are followed before the vehicles are released from the plant.

“Vehicles are not released until they meet the company’s launch quality standards, which are more stringent than ever,” says Kristen Kinley, quality communications manager, Ford Motor Co. Ford has instilled a quality operating system (QOS), which they use to identify critical issues within their manufacturing facilities. The company’s QOS is critical for identifying and correcting problems within the manufacturing facilities.

“QOS is implemented in each plant by Variability Reduction Teams (VRT)–cross-functional groups of engineers, plant management and product specialists, including the company’s most skilled problem solvers who’ve been trained through Six Sigma,” Kinley says, “Each team is assigned to one of 12 vehicle subsystems crucial to customer satisfaction, such as paint or body interior, and examines every detail, looking for imperfections so slight that even the untrained eye, or ear, could not detect them.”

Starting in January of 2000, Ford began a rigorous Six Sigma quality employee training program. It started with a Black Belt level program that certified the first Black Belts later that year. Ford also has trained Green Belts and in 2001 added a Master Black Belt program, which certified its trainees in June 2001. At this point in time, Ford has trained more than 95,000 Green Belts, more than 10,000 Black Belts, and more than 550 Master Black Belts, across the globe.

On top of that, Ford relies on a motion capture, virtual manufacturing process that allows operators to bridge the gap between product design and the plant assembly process. The software, which is no different than the type used in films or videogames, reduces injuries while reducing the costs of tooling changes.

GM uses On-Star to monitor vehicles during the final test phases. Source: General Motors

Starting Fresh

For a product to be truly reliable, it must first start with a measurement. A product can only be as reliable as its initial measurements. Kia Motors (Seoul, South Korea) has been slowly gaining steam as a reputable car company, and this is in part to greater product reliability. With a state-of-the-art plant recently opening in West Point, GA, Kia is focusing more time and energy on product reliability.

“We have a rigorous test phase, and check every inch of our product for reliability,” says Joanne Mabrey, assistant public relations manager. “We incorporate Six Sigma techniques into assembly, and have ‘keeper’ stations which check quality for every part.” In addition, Kia checks every car scrupulously on a 2-mile test track. Kia incorporates diagnostic computer testing, as well water and leak testing on 100% of their vehicles. Vehicles are tested by machine and by hand.

According to the J.D. Powers surveys, Kia is making strides for a reputable name in quality. The 2011 Sorento will feature built-in quality checks, on top of their rigorous drivability test.

But trying to beat stigma of product reliability is not a problem for every company.

Volkswagen (VW, Wolfsburg, Germany) is renown for reliability and often cited for this in various studies. But this is not stopping VW from trying to improve. “Every vehicle is inspected by hand, and we incorporate quality measure’s in each inspection,” says Thomas Wegehaupt, public relations coordinator at Volkswagen of America Inc.

But hard work does not go unnoticed. VW is making continuous improvements, which include a $1 billion investment to improve production at their Pablo, Mexico, plant. By instilling the time and money to guarantee quality products, VW hopes to gain momentum and support from the consumer community.

Manufacturers have heard the call from their customers and are taking consumer complaints serious. As technology continues to emerge, companies are relying on better quality systems to improve their products’ reliability. In the end, the most important function of any product is to work.Q

Tech Tips

  • Since 2000, Ford has trained more than 95,000 Green Belts, more than 10,000 Black Belts and more than 550 Master Black Belts across the globe.
  • Kia Motors incorporates an 8-minute, 2-mile test track process on each of its vehicles.
  • According to J.D. Powers and Associates, vehicle quality has been steadily improving over the past three years.