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Continuous E/E Quality Improvement a Must

As the battle rages between North American carmakers and suppliers to bring parts prices down further, the carmakers stand to lose out in the long run unless they can attain world-class quality along with lower prices. At some carmakers, electrical and electronics problems can account for half of all quality problems and too many of these problems make it into production. All too often, adding more electrical and electronics features to the car leads to more quality problems.

Japanese carmakers Honda, Nissan and Toyota have been taking market share from GM, Ford and Chrysler by selling high-value, high-quality vehicles at attractive prices. But while E/E quality has improved over time for most carmakers, the Japanese continue to perform significantly better and they are definitely not resting on their laurels.

We recently asked top electrical engineering managers from Nissan and Honda how they manage to keep making higherquality vehicles, from entry level to highlyfeatured, electronics-packed, luxury models.

One answer: you can’t ever be satisfied with quality levels already achieved. Honda’s top electrical engineer Hiroshi Irino told us, “At Honda, we don’t think the level of our quality is good enough.” Masaharu Asano, top electrical engineer at Nissan, acknowledged that while Nissan is not the quality leader today, that’s exactly what it’s working to become – the leader in both quality and cost.

So just how does a car manufacturer go about becoming a leader in both cost and quality? Nissan’s Mr. Asano suggested that maintaining development and manufacturing expertise in house is one of the keys.

Nissan manufactures in house about 5 percent of the electronics it uses in its vehicles. Honda develops its own E/E technology, including the software that controls engine, chassis and safety devices. By maintaining expertise in house and by completely understanding the products and technology used, both carmakers believe they are better able to judge and manage the quality coming from their suppliers.

While non-Japanese carmakers aren’t nearly so keen to make their own electronics, some are going out of their way to dramatically upgrade their electronics capabilities. Stung by low E/E quality ratings a few years ago, the Volkswagen Group decided to make electronics a core competence.

VW is developing more exact specifications, better development processes, better systems integration, better architectures and better testing. The company prepared an electronics strategy and has hired more than 500 people into the electronics group in all divisions – production, quality and engineering.

Unlike the Japanese, Mercedes asks its suppliers to write most of its software code. Mercedes maintains quality by making sure the specifications are perfect and by carefully testing what the supplier delivers. “We enable suppliers like Bosch or ContiTeves and even the smaller ones like Marquardt and Hella, to be true Tier 1 suppliers,” says Stephan Wolfsried, Mercedes’ top electrical engineer. BMW also believes that good specs are the key to quality. gThe E/E problems we see today are very much connected to incomplete specifications and insufficient architecture work,h says BMW’s top Electrical Engineer Hans-Georg Frischkorn.

The issue of E/E quality isn’t going away. Every year more and more of the vehicle’s value is comprised of electronics and software. For example, a navigation system today costs more than some engines, including the engine’s electronics controls. As more electronics are installed in vehicles, more problems will show up.

Mercedes offers a rich selection of multimedia devices in its vehicles and believes that is one of the reasons why they have more electrical problems than most other cars. For one thing, multifunction displays, DVD and CD players weren’t originally designed to work at the temperature extremes that vehicle interiors experience. And the fiber-optic data bus used to connect various multimedia components has also produced some problems in the field, problems that are tough to diagnose and to fix.

Given the pace of electronics proliferation in the vehicle, to stay competitive and survive in the market, all carmakers will have to make electronics a key competitive strength.

Paul Hansen is a strategy consultant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He publishes The Hansen Report on Automotive Electronics, a business and technology newsletter.

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