Thursday, July 19, 2007
Don't Get: Why Cars Don't Cost A Zillion Dollars
For those of you keeping score at home, I work in the upside-down world known as the automotive industry. In my little corner of the world, we make parts for the interior of the vehicle (not "car") like seats and stuff. It's a bit of a parallel universe to the real world where logic rules and people actually do things that make sense - except that it's the opposite of that. In my world, the sky is green and the grass is blue. Where the dog pees on the grass is still that same dead-grass color but other than that, it's the opposite.
The company I work for is pretty big so we supply stuff to all of the car companies out there. Certainly, the US automakers are the most screwed-up (getting in bed with the UAW will do that to you) but the other ones have their moments too. And since I'm writing this on my work computer on company time I don't want to bash my company, just the ones that we make parts for!
Here's a for-instance for you: There's a term around here called "in-vehicle position". It means that you might be able to see a defect if you hold a part at a certain angle in certain lighting, but if you look at it in its intended position in the vehicle, you wouldn't be able to see it. Let's suppose there's a flaw of some kind (maybe like a red dot on a cashmere sweater?) that is a little tricky to see. So, now picture a bunch of nerds waving a stupid sun visor around looking for the right angle to see a little bump that the owner of the car will never even notice. Heck, even if the owner does see it, they'll just chalk up the defect to crappy US craftsmanship and move on to swearing at the guy who just cut him off. But, because that bump is not "supposed" to be there, you gotta shut the line down, call the nerds, throw some parts away, re-build those parts, e-mail the customer, and generally alert the media all because of something that the dude driving the car will never see! So how much does all this running around cost? I have no idea, but I'm pretty sure it's a lot - all for a stupid visor, not even the engine or transmission or something a little more critical to getting from Point A to Point B.
OK, now all of these parts have to go together in the vehicle, right? Seats, the "overhead system" (that's the "ceiling"), the floor console and the "IP" (that's the instrument panel - known to everyone in the rest of the world as the "dashboard") - it's all gotta fit together. Well, the requirements for the gaps between this stuff is all technical like "plus or minus 0.5 millimeters" and all of us ying-yangs in the industry go to great lengths to make sure that the gap is not 0.6 millimeters because God knows you can't have that! So we build gages, have meetings, make phone calls, measure stuff and then re-do everything because that's what it says on the blueprint. I have one word for you: blueprint, schmueprint! How about if we use a real world test like there can't be a gap big enough for a french fry to fall down behind the cupholder. For the price of some potatoes and a deep fryer, we could test parts all day long! If we're feeling generous, we could install a ketchup dispenser on the assembly line and the nice people putting this stuff together could have a little snacky-snack while they're working. Edible quality control! Brilliant!
And don't get me started talking about the color of stuff. First, there is no such color as "black" in the automotive industry. There are colors like "midnight charcoal" and "ebony" though. Same for "tan". No "tan", but lots of "sand", "pebble", and "baby poop brown". OK, I made up that last one but some marketing department somewhere held meetings for three months to come up with those colors and then probably went on a golf outing afterwards to celebrate their success. Next, you gotta make sure that the parts you make match the little paint chip. To do that, we install cameras and sensors and junk on the assembly line to make sure that the color is just right. Fine, I get it. However, fast forward about six months to a chick driving her nifty new car down the road. As she is putting her makeup on (while driving) and drinking her Starbuck's (mother's milk!) and calling the babysitter (that little slut!) she accidentally drops her lipstick. After swearing into the phone, she removes said lipstick by just kind of rubbing it in with her thumb. All that hard work by the yahoos in the color testing lab went out the window because she could care less if there is a little "Fawn" lipstick on her "Platinum" seat as long as it doesn't leave a stain on her "ass".
OK, last gripe - documentation. I'm an e-mail kind of guy and a bit of a tree-hugger so I don't use much paper. The auto industry, however, apparently thinks that paper grows on trees (get it?!) because every stupid little change requires a friggin' novel that will then sit in someone's desk drawer in a three-ring binder of some kind. Each automaker has their own format for the same piece of information so you gotta do everything 58 times to keep everyone happy. I know they think that the stupid forms will be read daily so they must be kept in an orderly fashion, but that's a bunch of hooey. Once it is written and properly bound with all three rings, it WILL NEVER BE LOOKED AT AGAIN! Paper, binders and people cost money so let's just all knock it off, OK?
My point here, boys and girls, is that cars are cheap even at $20k or $30. Us dolts in the industry get paid a decent wage to go through all the gyrations described above (and write blog postings) and yet cars don't cost a zillion dollars. My other point (two points in one post!) is that it just isn't that important to go to such lengths to make an absolutely perfect car. It costs a bunch of money to do it and most people just don't care/notice. I bet if we forgot about looking for defects that people will never see, cars would cost about $173 and we could all have six or eight of them. When one of them ran out of gas, we could just ditch that car and drive another one. Why pay a ton of money for gas if the car is so cheap (for supplemental reading, please see my previous post about my confusion over the high price of gas)?
Hey, look, I've worked myself right into lunch!