DETROIT/WASHINGTON – Embattled air bag maker Takata Corp. lacks processes that would improve the quality of its products, including air bag inflators that have been blamed for at least 11 deaths and 139 injuries, an outside panel hired by the company has found.
The panel, chaired by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner, determined that Takata had no program in place to find quality problems once its products are installed in cars and trucks.
It also faulted the company for letting products move through the design process with unresolved problems and said Takata needs to develop its own standards for testing quality and safety rather than relying on automakers and regulators.
The group, which includes three former heads of the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was formed a year ago in the midst of a crisis with Takata air bag inflators.
So far, 14 car and truck makers are recalling about 24 million cars and trucks in the U.S. and around 50 million worldwide to replace Takata inflators.
The death toll and number of recalled vehicles keeps rising, with deaths reported recently outside of Pittsburgh and in Kershaw, South Carolina. Ten people have died in the U.S., with one, possibly two, more in other countries.
The company uses the chemical ammonium nitrate to create a small explosion that instantly fills air bags in a crash. But the chemical can deteriorate over time when exposed to humidity and heat, burning too fast and blowing apart a metal canister designed to contain the explosion. That can send shards of metal into drivers and passengers.
Skinner said Takata lacked clearly defined processes to raise quality concerns in the company once they were identified and said it needed “substantial cultural change” to move quality to the forefront.
“When you strive for quality, it involves something that you live and breathe,” Skinner said. “While they lived it and breathed it, they didn’t do it every day like other organizations do.”
For example, most of the loading of ammonium nitrate into inflator canisters is done by hand at Takata’s factories, but it should be automated to make it more consistent, Skinner said. Since reports of inflator ruptures surfaced in 2003, Takata at times has blamed the handling of ammonium nitrate for the problems.
“. . . Takata should move toward full automation of propellant loading and look for opportunities to increase machine assistance in air bag folding,” the panel said.
The report also found that Takata’s quality standards should take into account that vehicles stay on the road for more than a decade, with most of the inflator problems occurring in older vehicles.
The panel pointed to other key weaknesses in Takata’s corporate organization: It can move product designs to production even with outstanding questions unresolved, and it has no clear “ownership” of a product, that is, an individual or team charged to watch how it performs after it is developed.
“There is no stand-alone Takata program aimed at identifying quality-related problems with Takata products once they are in the vehicle fleet. And there are limited formal systems for consolidating and analyzing what information Takata does collect,” the report said.
The Skinner panel was not charged with finding what went wrong to create the faulty air bag problem, but instead to see how the company, which is accused of covering up the problem for years, should reform going ahead.
Skinner said that overall Takata’s corporate organization and processes are fairly strong, but could become more rigorous if the panel’s views are implemented.
“We expect Takata to implement our recommendation,” he said.
“It’s clear that they need to take some steps and it appears that they are committed to do so.”
However, the panel noted that Takata has committed to implementing the panel’s recommendations, including forming teams to track product quality from design through obsolescence, setting up a quality training program for employees, and development of a monitoring program to track changes.