Keith NicholsManufacturing companies build their reputation on the quality and safety of their products. Serious design faults, manufacturing errors and even incorrect labeling often result in widely publicized product recalls, which carry the risk of unwelcome commercial and brand image fall-out.

Although it is difficult to find an official figure for the total cost of recalls, it is clear that the number of affected customers is significant. In the North American automotive industry last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recorded that 32 million vehicles had been subject to recall notices. Investigation showed that some 50% of these were minor and at worst caused customer inconvenience. But the remainder resulted in potential damage to the vehicle, or even worse, injury to the driver and possibly to its passengers.

A number of these automotive recalls have been substantial. For example, in 2013:

· Chrysler, Honda, Toyota, each recalled over 1 million vehicles within North America, with Ford and BMW following closely behind.

· On a global level, a number of automotive recalls have been significant.  Hyundai Motor Company recalled 1.7 million vehicles recently, of which 0.4 million were in the USA. Last month, Volkswagen recalled a staggering 2.6 million vehicles worldwide.

Recalls not only damage a manufacturer’s reputation, but can be a massive cost burden. Toyota Motors recently reported a £2billion cost outlay to recover from several vehicle recalls. Very few automotive manufacturers have avoided recalls, from the expensive luxury ranges through to the less expensive, high volume versions. 

The problem is not limited to the automotive industry. In August 2013 Dell Inc. recalled 4.1 million notebook batteries because they could erupt in flames.

 A month later, the Chinese company Gree recalled 2.2 million dehumidifiers after they caused 46 fires and $2.15M damage to properties. Shortly after that, Schneider recalled 15 million of its surge protector products due to fire hazards. Royal Prestige recalled 1.7 milion units of its Thermal Wall Cookware, followed by One World Technologies Recalling 576,000 Ryobi Battery Chargers in the USA due to fire and burn Hazards

The list is extensive and includes a wide range of products such as toys, power tools, TVs, microwaves, mobile phones, and many other products.

Damage to a company does not stop at cost and reputation. It can also result in competitors grabbing sales of other company products whilst the recalled products are being fixed. It could even impact the ability of the company to attract and retain quality staff.

So why are we seeing recalls on this scale?
Some manufacturers say the reason is the increased pressure of bringing new products to market faster, which leaves them little time to identify and eliminate faults. Others point towards increasing outsourcing of the product with potential reliability problems that only reveal themselves after a period of operational exposure. Often, bought-in parts and sub-assemblies work well if maintained within their specified limits. However, depending upon how these have been configured within an increasingly complex product design, or what external conditions they have to endure during their operating life, these factors can potentially amplify the loadings and result in failure. The irony is that a $50,000+ product can fail because of a $50 part or even a $5 label.

Companies are finding it increasingly challenging to bring innovative products to market while continuously increasing performance, capability and flexibility.

This has been demonstrated in the motorcycle industry, where manufacturers have invested extensively in the use of the latest 3D design software to help them better meet these demands. Using this software to design, analyse and simulate their manufacturing processes, they have been able to successfully reduced time to market. In parallel, they have reduced build cycle time by outsourcing much of the manufacturing to suppliers. The motorcycle manufacturers have essentially become the final build operators.

From a business responsiveness perspective, this is proving very successful. However, the quality and reliability of bought in parts has to be questioned. Of all the recalls, some 50% can be traced back to supplier parts. Even though their incoming quality may be acceptable, their reliability within the overall product when used is a major source of failure. Ultimately, it is the OEM that takes the blame through its market reputation.

Where are the recalls happening within the motorcycle industry?
For many manufacturers, a product recall is the point where the success story can turn into a tale of woe. During 2012, VOSA (Vehicle and Operator Services Agency - the UK equivalent of
NHTSA) reported recall actions exceeding 1 million UK vehicles including 27,000 motorcycles. Although most motorcycle-related recalls were due to minor problems, some caused damage to the vehicles or injury to the riders. The number of recalls was many times greater in North America because of the higher number of registered motorcycles.

My investigation of reported recalls highlighted some interesting trends:

· Around 90% of the recalls were caused by lower value parts that were not functioning correctly, or  failed through early wear or corrosion. Many of these were caused by bolts, screws, brackets and fixtures working loose and damaging the motorcycle.

· Approximately 80% of the total recalls could be traced back to design and 20% to production

· The same conclusions were broadly applicable to most product recalls, irrespective as to whether it was a vehicle or an electric device, or even a toy.

Why is this happening?
A number of different reasons were found to be the cause of these recalls. The main causes are a central part of a designer’s work:

· Parts were not robust when an infrequent or unexpected combination of individual peak loads combined to create higher than predicted loads in excess of their specification.

· The positioning of parts can subject them to extremes of temperature or excessive vibration.

· Although individual parts would pass the factory quality inspections, it was often their field reliability that caused the recalls.

· In many cases, the suppliers of bought in parts were unaware of the full environmental conditions of the vehicle over its operating life and in some cases, were not robust to its repeated use. It is interesting to note that a number of these parts were fitted to off road bikes as well as on road tourers. The off road versions failed far more often.

So what does this all mean?
It is easy to blame today’s sophisticated design tools as a cause of these problems. Complexity of product and variety of options is demanding more from each employer in less time. In some cases, the tools are being stretched beyond their current limits. The increasing substitution of mechanical parts with electronics and software is creating difficulties in simulating and validating the total system at the design stage. The mechatronics systems can only be physically prototyped and validated at a later stage, and then reworked when errors are found. Not only does this add time and cost to the development cycle, something the designers are continuously battling to drive down, but often tests are not run for extended periods to understand the longer term reliability implications.

It is interesting to note that bolts, fixtures and similar fixing components are frequently at the root cause of many failures, across numerous types of vehicles. This raises the question why more research isn’t done on solving these issues to avoid a high percentage of recalls. After all, it is often the experience of the purchaser in using the product throughout its useful life, which informs the next buying decision. And the buyer communicates his or her feelings to others about any experienced problems. With the rapid adoption of social media, this message can reach a much wider audience more quickly than was previously possible.

Excellent performance, functionality and styling are major factors in winning business, but getting the design right at the nuts and bolts level is one sure way to improve the user experience and long term commercial success.