Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Japanese Fret Over Quality of Manufacturing

(Financial Times)

Toyota’s recall of 8.5m cars , trucks and sports utility vehicles in recent months has shocked Japan, home of manufacturing innovations such as the kaizen philosophy of continuous improvement and “total quality management”. But while there is little evidence that Japan has got worse at making things - in spite of fretting triggered by Toyota’s recalls - quality has become a big problem for Japanese companies. Japan’s challenge is that, while its factories still work well, the nature of products, the scale on which they are sold and where they are made have all changed.

Cars and gadgets have become more complicated, with engineers forced to specialise. “There are fewer and fewer people who understand how all the parts work together,” said Yoshinori Iizuka, a professor at Tokyo University. Cars now use more electronics and digital electronics use more software. “For electronics, quality is largely determined at the design stage. If there’s a flaw, it doesn’t matter how good quality control is at the assembly plant,” said Yoshiki Matsui, a professor at Yokohama National University.

On Monday, Sony told millions of PlayStation 3 users not to use their games consoles as it rushed to fix a bug. The warning appeared to be another blow to one of the biggest names in the electronics industry. Sony, which yesterday said it had resolved the glitch, believes its PS3 problem was due to a bug in the clock system that led consoles to act as if 2010 was a leap year. Toyota answered complaints about the brakes in its Prius hybrid with a patch to the software that controls them.

The problems highlight how Japanese companies have had to accept imperfections as products become more complex and their lifespan shorter, and mass-market consumers have demanded lower prices. “It’s extremely costly to make products 100 per cent defect-free,” said Mr Matsui. Read more here.

Related: Senator Suggests Banning Japanese-made Cars (USA Today)