@ Supply Chain Management


Toyota this and Toyota that…

What happens when Toyota falls flat? The price of success is hubris and there is for the hangers on a measure of schadenfraude to be had. To put it delicately, hot water is a kind description for the fabled auto manufacturer – there is even a website that I found that tracks issues with various Toyota models : Toyotoproblems.com

Logistics Management has an article on Toyota’s problems: Supply chain: Analysts weigh in on Toyota recall. The summary of that article is as follows:

.two analysts who spoke to SCMR today can confirm one thing: Toyota dropped the ball when it came to analyzing reports of problems in the past, reports that might have helped the company avoid such a dangerous and costly issue. Both analysts agreed that the chief lesson here for Toyota, and any other company looking to avoid similar problems, is to have tighter, more efficient analytics to better spot problems in advance.


Joe Barkai, practice director at marketing intelligence and advisory firm IDC, cited a 2008 report by the National Highway Transportation Authority, the government body that controls recalls in America. That report, he said, includes internal Toyota documents dating back to 2003, where the automaker detected an "unintended acceleration issue," which at the time had been attributed to floor mats which were not properly anchored.

This is clear proof, Barkai said, that Toyota has had problems for a long time with acceleration, but has failed to act.

"This recent Toyota incident is definitely not new," he said.

Michael Burkett, vice president of research at AMR Research, came to the same conclusion, citing the same documentation. There is clear evidence, he said, that Toyota was not processing the data from accidents and service reports properly.

"They were having difficulty correlating that information," he said. "It doesn’t appear that they detected problems were arising until it came to a head."

A key component in this fiasco seems to be the following that Joe Barkai points out:

Barkai suggested one factor in the size of the recall is the very design of Toyota vehicles, which in this case, may have been too efficient for the company’s own good.

"The cars are very, very similar," he said. "They use the same parts. They use the same suppliers."

As a result, Barkai said, even a minor parts-related issue could easily affect millions of cars at once. Of course, Barkai added, this same factor should have allowed Toyota to see the problem a lot sooner.

Taking the above observation along with the mistaken conclusion of the root cause analysis of “unintended acceleration issue” which was improperly anchored floor mats – the issue of the sticky accelerator pedal becomes a little clearer. Is that hubris, cutting corners or something else – some time in the near future, I think, the answer and solution will become clearer.

As you will observe, there is a feedback loop in place (falling back into Control theory terminology). What happens when the feedback loop input is not being correctly valued? The suggestion made in the article above is for better analytics in order to sift through the incoming data for yet another look. This is the role of the Observer in Control Theory. Then we get into the proper design of observers and their many inputs and the output – but it still comes down to resolving the feedback more than having an observer in the loop.

After a little more digging, I looked at some design related news about the same problem – sticky pedals. The article is from Design News: Toyota’s Problem Was Unforeseeable.

Toyota’s sticking gas pedal was an almost-unforeseeable problem, experts say, and the best course of action now is for engineers to ensure that drivers can handle the failure if it happens again.
"This is one of those horrifying nightmare problems that will occasionally occur, no matter how hard you try," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research.
Automotive experts said this week that predicting the problem would have been nearly impossible during design and test, especially given the kind of accelerated testing that is typically used to evaluate components which may have to last from 10 to 15 years. Making it even more difficult was the fact that the gas pedals didn’t appear to fail by themselves, but rather, by interaction with other components, such as heaters or floor mats.
"It’s not that they didn’t design a good accelerator pedal or linkage or floor mat or heater," said Steven D. Eppinger, professor of Management Science and Engineering Systems at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "They designed them each quite well. But the most difficult problems always relate to interactions between components and other systems."
Although Toyota now appears to be coming close to a repair for the gas pedal problem, many questions still remain about its genesis. The giant automaker has gone through a succession of theories about the problem’s cause, including interaction with floor mats, materials in the accelerator’s friction lever, and condensation and corrosion from heaters. During the two-year course of problems, Toyota has examined its floor mats, shortened its pedals, lengthened the friction lever and changed its linkage materials. This morning, the company reportedly said it will add a "spacer" that will increase the tension in a spring that would keep the pedal from sticking.
Still, experts say that one of the best fixes is one that helps drivers deal with the problem when it happens. "The takeaway is that it’s less about durability testing and accelerated testing, and more about designing for failure," said Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports.

The solution put forth there is to implement throttle-by-wire systems

Toyota’s throttle-by-wire systems, already in place on most or all of the affected vehicles, will soon contain additional software commands that will interrupt the flow of gasoline to the engine if a driver hits the brake pedal. Such software could go a long way toward preventing fatalities, since most drivers instinctively step on the brake pedal when the gas pedal sticks. Many competing automakers already incorporate those software commands in their electronic throttle bodies.

Whatever the root cause of the problem and the solution for it, there is little doubt in anyone’s mind that Toyota has stumbled and stumbled badly. What has been even more damning has been the sluggishness of the corporate response over and above the engineering, sourcing and manufacturing issues that may be at the heart of the problem. For that a heavy price must be paid.

About me

I am Chris Jacob Abraham and I live, work and blog from Newburgh, New York. I work for IBM as a Senior consultant in the Fab PowerOps group that works around the issue of detailed Fab (semiconductor fab) level scheduling on a continual basis. My erstwhile company ILOG was recently acquired by IBM and I've joined the Industry Solutions Group there.

@ SCM Clustrmap

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February 2010