Motor, 4 June 1983
Robots and new production line techniques are helping to ensure the improved quality of Austin Rover cars. Howard Walker reports.
You won’t see many white coats along the production lines at Cowley or Longbridge — the traditional image of the white-coated quality controller peering into nooks and crannies is fast disappearing at Austin Rover.
‘You can’t inspect quality by looking at it. When a chap has clipped on the door trim, how the hell do you know what’s behind it is working properly. Quality is with the man fitting the parts.’
This is the view of Austin Rover’s Director of Quality, David Caswell, a straight-talking Midlander whose firm ideas on how his company’s cars should be screwed together are gradually shaking off the poor quality image suffered by BL cars in the past.
His job has not been easy. It has required a radical change-around in production line procedures, a massive investment in new machinery and a new way of thinking by the Longbridge and Cowley workforces — a major task in itself. Yet his efforts have paid dividends; the Metro set new standards in quality in the Austin Rover division which were improved on with the introduction of the Maestro, and Caswell is confident that the forthcoming LM11 saloon will be even better.
‘I don’t aim to get any greater standard than we achieved in the past because we honestly believe that standard was good enough. But the major problem was trying to get every car we made to that same standard. lt didn’t happen. One of our slogans to the workforce now is that quality is repeatable, and that’s what we are aiming at,’ he said.
What Caswell has done is to rethink the whole car assembly process and divide the different stages of assembly into different sections — there are 14 for the Maestro. Each of these ‘zones’ is controlled by a foreman whose job it is to ensure that the workers fit all the parts correctly. And one of the tasks of the workers in the next zone along the line is to check on the work of the previous men.
‘Much though we value our workforce – and we do have a good workforce here — people are variable. The chap who has a row with his wife in the morning comes into work and may not fit the first door panel too well, so there needs to be checks all along the line.’
One of the major advances in Austin Rover’s quality control is Caswell’s Quality Index System. It gives the management the absolute right to take any car it likes off the end of the production line and put it under the magnifying glass. On the Maestro line, five cars a day are taken off and first inspected under critical lighting to check for paint defects, then put on a ramp to check the underbody, given a water test to check for leaks, and then taken on an 18 mile road test to test the mechanical components.
The inspectors have a manual which defines the degree of severity of any defect with ten, five and three demerit markings. A ‘three’ represents a minor defect like a paint blemish out of sight, say on the underside of the door sill; a ‘five’ is a slightly more serious defect; while a ‘ten’ is a totally unacceptable problem which results in the car automatically being sent back for rectification and the foreman responsible pulled over the coals.
But Caswell believed that that in addition to the visual checks made on random cars, more sophisticated quality checks had to be made on every car being produced. One area which had caused constant problems was that of checking for water leaks.
Drenching a car in hundreds of gallons of water did detect leaks but, in doing so, often soaked expensive interior trim which then had to be replaced. So in conjunction with BL Technology, Austin Rover came up with the world’s first ‘sniffing’ robot, which really is quite a brilliant piece of equipment. Basically what happens is that a car moving along the line has a plastic hose fixed to it and air seeded with 0.5 litres of helium is pumped in under slight pressure.
Two robot arms — one on each side of the car — equipped with sensors which detect the slightest whiff of helium, scan the whole of the body, tracing around the windscreen, door edges and boot checking for leaks. It then feeds its findings into a computer which produces a print-out in the shape of a car clearly showing where the leaks are. If leaks are in fact detected, they are rectified later along the line.
To test for those niggling faults like tailed bulbs, faulty indicators or non-working switches, Austin Rover call in the VETS. It is a new computer system which cost a cool £310,000 to install and the initials are short for Vehicle Electric Test System and is in operation at both Cowley and Longbridge. Probes are attached to each car on the line and computers measure, magnetically, the current passing through each circuit — if there’s a fault, then the current is different and can be detected.
Austin Rover also has what is claimed to be a unique ‘TV eye’ system which checks Metro brake discs — it’s expected to be used for other models later — for the most minute imperfections.
The system has been jointly developed by BL engineers and Warwick University staff and uses special cameras to check for pinpricks on the surface of the disc. Faults as small as two millionths of an inch can be detected.
‘All this is just the tip of the iceberg compared with what is to come in the future. We are looking at ways of robotising the application of underseal and using some of the concepts of the sniffing robot to check the bare car bodies for accuracy,’ said Caswell.
And was the massive investment in quality control paying off? Caswell said it was. Warranty claims had been reduced significantly and feedback from dealers and customers had been enthusiastic.
He explained that to discover what people actually thought about the cars, many new customers were contacted one month and six months after they had taken delivery, Also every few months, newly-built cars were taken to different towns and 50 people pulled off the street and asked what they thought about the cars.
In addition, every three to four months, around 80 dealers were asked to Cowley or Longbridge to give brickbats or bouquets on cars fresh off the production lines. ‘We are getting it right but it takes time,’ he added.