Door quality doesn't boost vehicle scores

Japanese rank high by focusing on big picture

Door check
Vehicles in the door study
  • Chevrolet Impala
  • Pontiac Grand Am
  • Ford Expedition
  • Chrysler PT Cruiser
  • Jeep Grand Cherokee
  • Dodge Dakota
  • Toyota Camry
  • Toyota Corolla
  • Nissan Altima
  • BMW 5 series
  • BMW X5
  • Mercedes S class
  • Volvo S80

  • The unexpected findings in an obscure research study on auto bodies may send up a cautionary signal in the industry's quest for quality.

    According to a new study of 13 vehicles from around the world, the more a manufacturer tends to the precise quality of its door construction, the worse the overall vehicle may score in the eyes of the consumer.

    To confound the quality-obsessed industry further, manufacturers who are less strict in their production of doors tend to score higher in quality, according to the study by the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

    One probable explanation for the paradox: Some automakers could be making the mistake of viewing vehicle doors as individual components, rather than addressing the big picture - the overall construction of their vehicle bodies.

    Japanese at top

    Japanese automakers tend to perform better overall, yet they are less rigorous in enforcing door specifications, said Jay Baron, director of manufacturing at the research center and the person in charge of the study. They appear to do so by "taking a more holistic view" of vehicle body measurements, he said, permitting slight discrepancies on the doors to get better fit and finish during final assembly.

    Conversely, Baron said, the German industry is the most precise builder of doors, but it ranks lower than the Japanese in J.D. Power and Associates surveys on initial quality.

    The vehicle with the highest quality doors in the study ranked seventh among the 13 vehicles on Power quality scores, while the vehicle with the worst doors of the group ranked third.

    Baron declined to identify where the individual vehicles ranked in the study, citing concerns about confidentiality. But he noted that his findings already are attracting the attention of the Big 3, who tend to rank in the middle on quality performance. During the past few months, as the study concluded, Baron has given several presentations on the findings to audiences at each of the Big 3.

    Modular implications

    The study raises concerns about the industry's current leanings toward modularity and outsourcing. Large suppliers, such as Lear Corp. and Johnson Controls Inc., are offering to provide automakers with fully trimmed doors.

    At the same time, some auto manufacturers, notably Ford Motor Co., are embracing the Six Sigma approach to quality control. Under Six Sigma, factory teams attempt to eliminate all variances from specifications.

    The study found that Japanese automakers take a different tack. They routinely bring their Tier 1 and Tier 2 body and tooling suppliers together early in the vehicle's development stage to work on specifications. There is more communication between the suppliers of body stampings and body component makers on how pieces will fit together.

    "Their approach tends to be, 'Let's focus on the final quality and finish, not just on getting the tooling to produce to exact, perfect measurements,' " Baron said.

    The Center for Automotive Research recently said it will merge later this month with the Auto Body Consortium Inc., a research organization established by the Big 3 and 50 of their suppliers. Baron said the new organization intends to take a closer look at the study's findings.

    "If there's a lesson here, it's that the industry needs to look very carefully at how it integrates all of its parts," Baron said. "If the U.S. industry is going to modularize major sections of the vehicle body, they have to be alert to the problems with the overall structure.

    You can reach Lindsay Chappell at lchappell@crain.com

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