DETROIT – 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 has no program in place to find quality problems once its products are installed in cars and trucks. It also faults the company for letting products move through the design process with unresolved problems and says 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. 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.
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. In the meantime, 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 and possibly two more in other countries.
Skinner said Takata lacks clearly defined processes to raise quality concerns in the company once they are identified and said it needs “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.
Because most of the inflator problems have happened in older vehicles, Takata’s quality standards should take into account that vehicles stay on the road for more than a decade, the report said.
Takata says it already has invested $160 million for equipment to automate its manufacturing and has added over 100 people to its North American quality organization. It also has made leadership changes and set up an improved whistleblower hotline.