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  • General Motors Gains in Vehicle Dependability

    Posted on March 23rd, 2009 ninarussin

    J.D. Power & Associates report is good news for Buick and Cadillac

    By Nina Russin

    2009 Buick LaCrosse

    2009 Buick LaCrosse

    Last week, J.D. Power & Associates released its 2009 Vehicle Dependability Study. The report, covering customer satisfaction over the first three years of ownership, was good news for General Motors. Buick and Cadillac were at the top of their respective segments. The Buick LaCrosse received an award in the midsize class, and Buick tied with Jaguar as the most reliable brand in North America.

    Cadillac ranked ninth among all brands in the industry: the CTS ranked second in the entry premium segment, while the DTS came in third overall among large luxury models.

    The study confirmed what GM insiders suspected, based on a fifty percent decrease in warranty claims since 2006. People who buy new GM cars are finding them pleasurable and dependable to own.

    Quality improvement begins with design, and continues through customer delivery, according to Janine Fruehan, manager for quality/safety/ R & D communications.

    The process begins with engineering for manufacturability: engineers validate all the components that will go into a new car.

    “Years ago we validated parts to a certain mileage,” said Fruehan. “Today we test and validate to not fail.”

    Validation from the inside out

    A team of engineers oversees each section of the car. The interior team evaluates all of the elements in the seats: fabric, stitching, seatbelt webbing, etc. Engineers conduct 300 quality tests on interior elements alone.

    As part of this, they consider the way people will use their cars. For example, they test hand lotions and sunscreens to see if they will cause discoloration on touch points such as the steering wheel.

    Once engineers have validated individual components, they determine how they come together in the product: a process called vehicle integration. This is where they address fit and finish issues such as panel gaps.

    Global resources

    General Motors uses engineering home rooms around the world to source parts and improve overall quality. Fruehan cited the example of small car platforms. Since small cars have traditionally sold better in Europe than the United States, GM uses European engineering teams to design small cars for the US.

    Teams of engineers source parts for the chassis components they’re responsible for. The team that develops a car’s brake system would source the rotors, pistons, pads, and other components.

    While price is an important consideration, suppliers must also be able to deliver parts in a timely manner, and ensure consistent quality.

    Virtual and real-world testing

    Before a car goes into production, engineers use CAD/CAM (computer aided design and modeling) to perform virtual tests that assess durability, performance and crashworthiness.

    The engineering team also uses a fleet of pre-production vehicles to do real-world tests, to study performance in various climates, on different driving surfaces, and using different driving styles. The size of the test fleet varies according to anticipated production volume. While the test fleet for the Corvette might be fairly small, a high-volume car such as the Malibu will have an evaluation fleet of 300-400 cars.

    Engineers on the current Malibu drove test cars three million miles as part of the validation process.

    Reducing manufacturing errors

    Part of each vehicle’s validation is error-proofing mass production. Since some parts that look similar perform different functions, engineers will color code them to avoid confusion on the assembly line.

    Workers also have the ability to stop the assembly line using the “and on” cord. When a worker questions a component’s quality or is unsure about a process, he pulls the cord and stops the line. This gives supervisors time to prevent a potential problem.

    OnStar is a competitive advantage

    “OnStar gives us a great competitive advantage because it allows us to download millions of data inputs,” explained Fruehan. In addition to the engineering mules, GM uses OnStar to download information from all of the vehicles in its corporate fleet.

    OnStar records vehicle data from every fourth ignition turn on all company-owned cars. The same software can give car owners who subscribe to OnStar periodic ’health reports’ on their cars and trucks.

    “While warranty claims give us customer feedback, OnStar gives us real-time media input,” explained Fruehan.

    “In years past, by the time warranty claims identified an issue there would be thousands of vehicles in the marketplace that we’d have to bring in on recalls,” she continued. OnStar has enabled GM to significantly reduce its vehicle recalls since 2004.

    A better dealership experience

    Quality management in dealerships includes classes that keep sales and service personnel current on new models and technology. 

    When vehicles are off-loaded from a carrier, the dealership is responsible for performing a complete inspection on each car, to make sure that no damage occurred during transportation.

    “Our service technicians are trained to fix the car right the first time,”  said Fruehan, to avoid inconveniencing the customer.

    Finally, each salesperson is expected to do a complete walk-through of every vehicle delivered to a customer before it leaves the dealership.

    Internal data reveals that many warranty claims result from customers not understanding how various systems in their cars work. For example, a person might think the audio system is malfunctioning because he or she doesn’t know how to program it.

    “Past warranty claims give us feedback on the areas that are the biggest problems,” said Fruehan.

    Initial quality survey comes out in June

    In June, J.D. Power & Associates releases its initial quality survey, that covers the first three months of ownership.

    “Our third party information tells us that we’re improving our initial quality at a rate of 17 percent, compared to the industry average of 5 percent,” said Fruehan. General Motors hopes the upcoming J.D. Power & Associates report will reflect this data.


    3 responses to “General Motors Gains in Vehicle Dependability”

    1. “Consumer Reports” continues to be critical of General Motors products in terms of reliability based on its reader surveys. It is obvious that magazine survey is biased (in a statistical sense) in that it does not represent a true random sampling of all product owners (like J.D. Power & Associates) but rather votes from a subset of owners, i.e., its readers. Furthermore, the magazine has no way of validating that the reader is actually an owner of a particular vehicle. Thus a reader that has a grudge against a manufacturer can cast a negative vote for a vehicle that he/she does not own or ever driven.

      It is for this reason that I do not take “Consumer Reports” poling results seriously and rely on J.D. Power & Associates survey results instead.

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