22 November 2016
Recalls are a painful experience for manufacturers and becoming increasingly so, not least for the automotive sector. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Transportation pushed for an overhaul of the automaker's safety and recall practices in a bid to improve road safety. This led to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) imposing the first ever maximum financial penalty on a number of automotive manufacturers. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles was fined a total of $140 million in two separate penalties and GM and Honda have both since received a $70 million fine.
While these sums might make you wince, they represent only a fraction of the true cost of a safety recall. On top of the fines, manufacturers have the cost of recalling the vehicles products, replacing or repairing any issues, providing additional customer support to deal with related customer queries and installing systems to ensure that similar mistakes are not repeated. And there’s a longer-term negative impact on brand and sales which is not so easy to quantify.
Safety recalls are by no means an issue exclusive to the automotive industry. You don’t have to search far to find stories about recalls by manufacturers making food and beverage products, mobile phones, white goods and many more. While the issues, fines and responses may change each time, the incidents are nearly always costly and hugely damaging to the company responsible.
Issues for car manufacturers
When it comes to making cars, there are different types of faults that can occur. Any nut, bolt or screw that people fix falls into one of three categories. Those with the lowest importance relate to cosmetic appearance of a car such as a trim (which is far more important to some brands than others). Then there are the mid-level fasteners, used on items such as instrument panels, which are structural but not safety critical (although it is not advisable to drive without them!). Finally there are critical fasteners, which relate directly to safety and affect items including seatbelt mounts, airbags, brake pedals and electrical connections.
When it comes to safety critical fasteners, manufacturers are duty bound to keep a safety record providing proof that every vehicle has been manufactured correctly and passed the required quality checks. In a plant, more than 1,000 cars can be built in a day – so if there is a mix up in records or a potential issue is not spotted straight away this can lead to major recalls involving many vehicles. With safety recalls the costs grow incrementally, so the later that the fault is found, the bigger the repercussions. In the worst case scenario, the affected cars will reach dealerships and sold on to customers, which can lead to accidents and even death.
Very recently one of the major automotive manufacturers embarked on a costly safety recall following a potential issue with fuel tank attachment bolts that had not been tightened properly. As a result, there was a possibility that - after an extended period of time - the fuel tank straps could fracture, causing the fuel tank to separate from the vehicle and leading to a fuel leak which, in the presence of an ignition source, can start a fire. It was imperative to alert the owners of the affected cars and relevant dealerships to ensure that this didn’t happen - and as quickly as possible.
Location, location, location
Many of the problems in manufacturing aren’t seen as location based, but the truth is that an assembly line is about moving things and attaching them to other moving items. If anything is in the wrong place, at the wrong time, problems will arise.
On a busy automotive assembly line, when every car often has a different specification, the opportunity for location errors to occur are vast. The right person needs to be in the right place working on the right bolt using the right tool at the right setting on the right car – if any one of these factors is wrong there will be an issue (as can be seen in the recall example above). By tracking the exact location of tools, people and assets, Ubisense’s technology can ensure that each of these factors is performing correctly. If an issue does occur, Ubisense’s system will send alerts so that problems can be resolved before the car leaves the assembly line. The system can also be set up to disable tools taken to the wrong car or used on the wrong process. This is beyond error detection and moves to error prevention – and is helping Ubisense to prevent major auto recalls for 8 of the world’s top 10 automotive manufacturers.
Creating location-aware environments
Mistakes caused by human error are pretty much guaranteed in a busy manufacturing environment - and even the smartest of factories requires some element of human interaction. What’s important is to support these manual processes with error proofing – or preferably error prevention – systems, so that a simple mistake overlooked does not become a major problem for manufacturers and their customers at a later date.
Ubisense’s advanced tracking technology enables manufacturers to create location-aware environments which make sense of thousands of movements and interactions in real-time. By providing visibility across an entire operation, Ubisense’s technology not only alerts manufacturers to issues as they occur - helping to avoid situations which may lead to safety recalls - but delivers a whole host of other benefits in terms of accurate reporting and compliance. Precisely tracking people, tools and other assets within in any specified environment, Ubisense’s smart solutions help manufacturers to maintain continuous flow, optimize efficiency and reduce errors in manual assembly processes through real-time spatial modelling and analysis.
To find out more about our range of products that are delivering efficiencies to manufacturers across the world, please see our dedicated product pages including SmartSpace, Smart Factory and AngleID.
 According to Forbes 2015 list of top automotive manufacturers