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Confessions of an auto engineer

  • Story Highlights
  • Engineer: Import companies a little more concerned about having quality product
  • Some import companies know they can charge more because of their reputation
  • Overall: manufacturers of both domestic and import cars produce quality vehicles
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By Christopher Neiger
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New Cars, Used Cars, Kelley Blue Book Values at AOL Autos

(AOL Autos) -- We've seen it many times before in movies, TV, and even in real life. A driver reaches over to open his door and the handle falls off in his hand.

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A substantial amount of time, money and manpower go into designing and building durable automobiles.

Or picture a customer as he rolls his brand-new car off the dealership lot and makes a left-hand turn, while one of his tires continues straight down its own path.

Scenes like these can be humorous, but build-quality in vehicles is no laughing matter, especially when it's your own car's quality in question.

Car manufacturing is a difficult business. A substantial amount of time, money and manpower go into designing and building durable and desirable automobiles. One of the most integral parts to that system is the people who check the quality of the cars as they're being manufactured in the plant.

These quality engineers help make sure the domestic and import cars we buy are the best they can possibly be. But do the men and women behind the scenes have the resources they need to get you the best product possible?

Recently, I interviewed a former quality engineer and asked him what his take was on the automobile industry's car manufacturing processes. He agreed to talk about his experiences, opinions and evaluations.

We elected to hide his identity to protect his privacy, although we didn't get to do anything fun like put a mask or cape on him; instead we're taking the easy way out and referring to him as "Jason."

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Jason has worked in several different automobile plants on two continents for both a leading manufacturer of import cars and then for a leading domestic automaker. AOL Autos isn't in the business of taking sides, so we chose to keep the names of those domestic and import car companies to ourselves.

One of the first things I wanted to know about the quality of the cars on the road was if the manufacturers really have people like you and me in mind when they're building the car. Jason quickly responded, "Oh absolutely" to my inquiry of whether our satisfaction was their number one goal.

He says both the domestic and import car companies took pride in making quality-built vehicles, but also says there was a difference between the two companies he worked for.

When talking about the domestic company, Jason says one of the main focuses was on getting an aggressive number of parts completed in a designated time period. "They were more concerned with getting volume out," he says.

With the import car company, he says, "They would rather spend a little bit more time than take the chance of having a non-quality product." Among other things, Jason worked closely with the team responsible for the engineering of the seats in one of the best-selling import cars on the road and described the process to me.

Once the initial parts were stamped out of the steel, the quality checks ensued. The import carmaker created fixtures that would check the parts as they were being assembled with other parts.

"After a part was 30 percent manufactured, they would have another fixture to check the parts. And then when they were finished processing it, they would have another fixture to check the completed product before it goes into the car. So they had checks throughout the entire process," he said.

With the domestic company, one of Jason's projects consisted of working on the gas tank of one of the largest and most popular American SUVs. I was wondering about the domestic company he worked for and their process of checking the parts along the line, so I asked him if they did the same thing.

He said, "The domestic company would have one check at the end. They would check the final part and it would be OK, but the bad thing about it was that if something goes wrong with the overall part, you have no idea where the breakdown is because none of the parts before it were checked."

To be fair, there are many more intricate parts that need to be checked in the design and function of a seat than in a gas tank, which may be the reason why there were less quality checks at the domestic plant than with the import cars. Either way, Jason stands by the SUV he worked on.

When asked whether or not he would recommend it he said, "No doubt about it. That thing's built like a tank." He admitted that with some domestic car products, you have to pay more to get good quality.

Aside from just checking the quality of the manufactured product, I wanted to know specifically if these companies cut corners to get their products produced faster. "Actually, both of them cut corners," he told me, "but [the import car company] wouldn't sacrifice quality in the process of cutting corners. Now in the domestic business they would cut corners, and many times they would sacrifice quality. I've seen it so many times."

He elaborated, "I remember [the domestic company] needed to get some parts out really fast and there was something that one of the engineers brought to the attention of the general manager, that there could be a potential problem with some of the parts being manufactured.

The general manager said, 'Keep running, don't stop' so they could make the quota. It came to pass that about five lots of the parts turned out to be bad, and it was a bigger problem than if we added just a few people to ensure the quality of the product up front. That wasn't a one-time thing."

Jason did clarify that these faulty parts were not installed on the SUV. Instead, he and his team were instructed to remove the parts in question, replace them with new parts, and then install the working final product into the vehicle. Jason said, "The problem was fixed, but it was a significant loss of time and money in the end."

Situations like this led Jason to draft suggestions for the domestic company on how to improve quality in their vehicles. "I actually drew up some short proposals of some things that could be done," he says. "They were actually things that I learned at the import car company that would ensure the quality, put a few checks in place. [They] would have needed one extra person and increased costs just a little bit. And I remember my quality control manager says, 'Yeah, this is a great idea, we're thinking about doing this later.' He really just kind of shrugged it off," Jason told me, "because he knew the general manager wouldn't go for it.

And the interesting thing is that I think they hired me because I came from the import car company and knew what I could contribute, but when I got there they didn't want to do anything different than they had already done."

I asked Jason whether or not the manufacturers of domestic or import cars look at their competitor's vehicles in order to improve their own. "I remember one domestic company that I worked with, they did," he says.

"They were actually looking at how the import car company did things and adopting some of the ideas." Jason explained that in this case, both the manufacturers of the domestic and import cars shared the same plant and assembly line, making the same car under two different names.

"I watched the cars go down the line and then split at the end just before they put the wheels on and all the little cosmetic stuff. One went to the left and one went to the right."

(Editors Note: We would like to point out that in today's competitive automotive market it is common for automakers to look at each others cars and gain insight. In this case both cars were on the same assembly line and were more than likely co-engineered. We bet the domestic and import companies learned from each other equally.)

When asked how consumers can get the best price considering both cars were built from the same plant with just different names, Jason says, "It's so hard because so much goes into the price of the car. Some of it's just a name, just branding."

He told me that the import car company knew they could charge more for the import cars because of their reputation.

(Editors Note: Consumers should be aware. Obviously some vehicles are built on the same platform and assembled together, then sold under different brands. These types of vehicles should have the same quality regardless of a domestic or import badge, but you may pay a premium for the import version. You'll have to decide if the higher price is worth the different sales and service experience at the dealership.)

As for Jason's reputation, I asked him whether or not he was ever pressured to compromise his own quality standards. "Oh yeah, no doubt about it," he says, "[but] because of my personal values, I kind of set the standard that I wouldn't do anything unethical." He says that his integrity was worth more to him than his job. "So they would just go around me and get the senior engineer to sign off on stuff that I wouldn't."

Because of their overall quality, Jason usually recommends import cars over some domestics, but concedes that some of the domestic companies are starting to put more quality into their overall product line. "If you look at most of the cars on the road right now, the imports are gaining ground, and that's not helping our economy. We need an American company to take the wheel and say, 'Hey, we're going to step it up a little bit.'" Jason hopes to see more domestic manufacturers boost their overall car parts quality.

I asked Jason how consumers can ensure they're getting a quality-built car and he tells me, "I think Consumer Reports is good and J.D. Power does a good job of scrutinizing the automotive industry and seeing who is doing what ... and I say that because when I was in the industry, what they said correlated with what I saw."

By and large, manufacturers of both domestic and import cars produce quality vehicles that are worth their weight. Sometimes it just takes a little research on our part to determine the best car for the price.

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