Ford’s quality efforts are paying off for the company

1 Jun 2011 | 4,257 views | No Comment
Ford Motor Company, by any measure, is now  in the midst of what is the one of the biggest comeback stories in American industry. And if Ford officials are asked to sum up the reasons for their stunning success, their response is likely to be summed up in one word: Quality.      In March, Lincoln received the highest score for long-term durability among all vehicle brands in the annual J.D. Power and Associates’ 2011 Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS).   The Lincoln MKZ is the second-highest performing model in long-term durability in the entire study.  Ford Motor Company vehicles received awards in four segments: Lincoln MKZ, Entry Premium Car, Ford Fusion, Midsize Car, Ford Mustang, Midsize Sporty Car, and  Lincoln Navigator, Large Premium Crossover/SUV. In total, Ford had nine vehicles ranking in the top three of their respective segments. They include Ford Edge, Ford Explorer Sport Trac, Ford Taurus, Ford F-150 and Ford Ranger.   So how has Ford made the journey from the days of having acceptable or decent quality to being such a star performer now? For one thing, the company is focusing like a laser beam on items relating to quality that have nothing to do with perfect build, zero defects or similar concerns, though those are all still deeply important to the company. But quality these days means something far more than those issues, company officials say. Ford's Bennie Fowler,  group vice president, global quality and new model launch, who was in Pittsburgh recently, talked about quality with Automobile Journal when he was town. "I think quality is an end game.  When I think of quality, I want to be able to have the customer look at the vehicle, and say from a distance, 'Hey, I want to own you.' I want them to stroke the fenders ane be able to say, 'Hey, I'm proud to have this car in my driveway," Mr. Fowler said. "When you look at the car, for instance, proportions are important.  We know that proportions are important and attractive to consumers, so we are trying to make sure the car has the right proportions-- the right overhangs and the right symmetry," he said. "And when you get into the car, you want to look at a selection of materials that help make sure  that the interiors are harmonious, and that everything is just right, right down to the way that the cabin smells when you get in.  It's the aroma and sensory perceptions that are important nowadays that we work on, too. That includes ambient mood ligh,, and different sources of lighting that appeals to different customers.  We want to make sure that the cabin is home away from home, and that when you close the door,  you  hear sounds that are like a vault, and all of that gives you the idea that you are in a well-built car," he said.     Sound also plays a big role in consumers' perceptions of quality, Mr. Fowler said. "We are working on refining quietness on all of our vehicles. There's speech intelligibility, for instance-- passengers, being able to talk to you without raising their voices while you're driving." To get where they are today, Ford's been doing some pretty intense work on all levels--workers, equipment used to assemble cars, data gathering and quality control checkpoint programs.   For instance, remember the interior qualities that Mr. Fowler referred to? To "get there," Ford's rolled out  a robot with a human touch. The Robotized Unit for Tactility and Haptics, or Ruth, is a machine designed by Ford that combines a computer’s eye for detail with human perceptions of quality through touch and feel. Engineers at Ford’s European Research Centre in Aachen, Germany, employ Ruth to fine-tune vehicle interiors – from the feel and operation of switches to the texture and consistency of materials.  Ford engineers have recently been using Ruth to help design the optimal steering wheel by comparing the robot’s measurements with detailed market research into customer perceptions of quality, such as the softness of leather and foam combinations.  Ford engineers have been using Ruth’s ability to measure temperature and roughness in fine detail to develop steering wheel controls for the new Ford Focus that have the same high-quality metallic feel as those from luxury models. Ford engineers “teach” Ruth which qualities feel good to human hands by linking the human perception to the robot’s detailed measurements. By referring back to the data, Ruth can then predict whether new components will appeal to Ford customers. Ruth’s detailed and consistent approach supports the subjective analysis of Ford’s human quality experts. “We analyzed the results of a customer clinic on steering wheels and compared them to the readings Ruth had given us,” says Mark Spingler, Ford technical expert, vehicle interior technologies. “Normally we would say above 80 per cent is a correlation that is statistically significant, but Ruth’s readings on which steering wheels were most appealing to customers were 92 per cent accurate, which is really outstanding.”
    Wind noise has come in for a lot of attention, too, Ford officials say. In four years, Ford’s wind noise rating
went from second-worst in the industry to best in class, according to GQRS, a Ford-commissioned
customer survey conducted by RDA Group. The results are due to a manufacturing/product development crossfunctional team focusing on closure systems.
One of the solutions for wind noise, for instance that they came up with was to move sheet metal coordination upfront in the development process to ensure  that parts fit together. On the Flex, for instance, the closure group installed a new inset door rather than the traditional limo door, eliminating the pathwhere wind noise typically flows.
The company's also looking out for the role that simple human error can make in the quality control process.
       "Human beings get tired and make mistakes. Computers don’t, " a Ford news release says. That statement is the foundation for the company's patented error-proofing system, currently in place at the majority of the company’s North American assembly plants.
      A part of a $130 million investment progam at the Wayne Stamping and Assembly in Michigan where the Ford Focus is built for North America for example, the company installed more than 100 new computerized direct-current (DC) electric hand tools. 
      Where the previous system uses air-driven guns, these electric tools are connected to an Assembly Information Station or “AIS” box, a computer that connects the DC tool to the production line. It has a 12-inch screen with stack lights and a horn. As the heart of the error-proofing system, the AIS box tells the operator whether all nuts and bolts are screwed into the vehicle at precisely the right torque in precisely the right way. If not, the line stops.
     The error-proofing system not only ensures that this “critical-to-quality” assembly process is completed with precision; it also reduces
 workers’ strain, ensures the correct parts are picked and allows for constant monitoring during the build.       Of course, how you do business, both within the company and with consumers, also can affect quality.        At Ford, company officials have taken many extra steps to make sure everyone, from the employes on factory floors all the way up to the board room, are all on the same page when it comes to products, production methods, and other issues, Mr. Fowler said.        " The culture change at Ford is about working together,about  how we use factory data, and working with our Ford teammates around the world to deliver quality," Mr. Fowler said.      He added, "The one thing that we have to do is constantly review the  business environment and what's changing, and we have to do lots of research around what customers now need to be satisfied with our products. We have to make sure that we don't walk away from the basic elements that define our brand, and the essence of what Ford Motor Company stands for."       The concern with making sure products are consumer-driven to a great degree will be particularly apparent on upcoming Lincoln models, Mr. Fowler said.      "As we remake Lincoln and create new products for Lincoln, we will offer our point of view and our take on  on what customers in the marketplace like and want. We want cutting edge designs that have that point of view. Our Lincoln customers will have truly unique designs that  focus strongly on customer desires and experiences."

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