Mazda needs to replace as many as 1.5 million potentially deadly Takata airbag inflators in its vehicles sold in the United States. That duty is imposing new burdens on Mazda dealerships' service departments.
In response, Mazda North American Operations is launching a voluntary training program in airbag installation that company officials say will relieve service bottlenecks.
"We're going to create Takata tech specialists," Robert Davis, Mazda's senior vice president of U.S. operations, told Fixed Ops Journal. "This will allow dealers to get these cars in and out. It'll be high volume, almost like a quick lane."
Federal regulators have ordered automakers to fix or replace 35 to 40 million Takata airbags by the end of 2019. About 730,000 Mazda vehicles are included in the U.S. recall. Nearly 1.5 million inflators may need to be replaced, if both driver and passenger units are required.
Mazda says each inflator takes about 20 minutes to swap out; Davis called it a "relatively easy fix." The 635 U.S. dealerships that sell Mazda vehicles are performing about 10,000 replacements a month, but the automaker wants to get to 31,000.
The typical Mazda dealership employs four or five service technicians. Many service departments are bogged down with recall and warranty work while customer-pay repairs are slowed or postponed, Davis said.
"The human limitations -- not enough technicians -- have to be addressed in innovative ways, double shifts or weekend hours," he said. "The dealers weren't prepared for the spike, and the recall work and customer service were out of balance."
Lube technicians who complete Mazda's training program will be qualified to perform the Takata inflator replacements, Davis said. That will free up more-experienced technicians to tackle tougher repairs.
The web-based courses are taught by Mazda employees or contract instructors. Teaching occurs online at a technician's own pace or in virtual classes that use videos and linked computer monitors.
Davis said Mazda's recall repair efforts began in earnest in March. They provide an opportunity for dealers to build customer trust, he said.
"Many of the cars [involved in the recall] are older and haven't been in a dealership for a long time," Davis said. "A lot of the customers didn't buy the vehicle new, and they've never had a chance to build a relationship with the dealer."
Expanding entry-level technicians' duties to include warranty work during the Takata recall campaign is paying off for service departments as well, Davis added.
"When we allow the lube techs to do simpler warranty work, they turn out to have the best fix-it-right-the-first-time scores of any of our technicians," he said. "The amount they get paid and the reimbursement to the dealer are increased."
Davis noted that Masahiro Moro, who became CEO of Mazda North American Operations Jan. 1, has been involved in all decisions related to the airbag recall.
"The goal is not just to exercise what the government is asking us to do," Davis said. "It is to get the customers who are in high-temperature, high-humidity areas safe."
Davis said Mazda is using social media and the website mazdarecallinfo.com to urge customers who are driving vehicles with Takata airbags to come to the dealership promptly.
"We just did a couple of new notices," he said. "We've gotten more aggressive with the wording."
"The early adopters are easy. It's the guy you send four or five notices and emails to that's going to be a struggle."