Software to boost quality, close communications gap The "secret" to Japanese quality manufacturing, as exemplified by Toyota Motor Corp. - the acknowledged leader - is no secret to Dale B. Mahrle, president of Quality Measurement Control Inc. based in Auburn Hills, MI.

"Why are the Japanese so good? Because they use the same designers, engineers, suppliers, diemakers and machinery builders from one program to the next," Mr. Mahrle explains. "In the United States, automakers shift their people around more often and they take bids on everything from all over the world."

As a result, what Mr. Mahrle humorously describes as a "Tower of Babel" is erected, creating a communications quagmire that bedevils coordination of statistical dimensional information that starts with the automakers' specifications. As a result, U.S. programs take far longer, and achieving quality can suffer, he says.

Not surprisingly, he claims QMC has a remedy: Sophisticated software called CM4D designed to assure dimensional stability up-front in the product development stage through to Job 1 on the assembly line.

One key attribute is the software's capability of interfacing with a dazzling array of computerized systems used by the automakers and their suppliers - in effect becoming the common denominator in meeting dimensional parameters and thus quality targets.

"Everyone has a different way of collecting information," he says. Meshing these disparate systems, analyzing the information and discovering "root causes" of variations have been major hindrances to both speed and quality, Mr. Mahrle maintains.

Now, thanks to the Internet, QMC can tie together all parties involved "with a browser, all over the world" to assure each is on track, he boasts. "We can now meet specifications across international borders." Logica Corp., a British firm, worked with QMC in linking CM4D to the Internet.

Founded in 1988 chiefly as a quality engineering and consultancy firm specializing in manufacturing solutions, privately held QMC now has three other divisions: Variation management technologies, inspection services and a contract services unit that supplies technical personnel.

Besides CM4D, which it describes as "data management software," the firm offers a broad range of manufacturing engineering services including fixture and tool certification, gauging processes, product validation, Coordinate Measuring Machine (CMM) systems and support, and inspection capabilities.

QMC began developing CM4D in 1991 as a "shop floor system" to support its own internal activities "because no one had anything like this," he says. More recently it has applied the software to support its work on a variety of manufacturing and assembly tasks for General Motors Corp., DaimlerChrysler AG, Ford Motor Co., Navistar International Corp., Honda Motor Co. Ltd. and numerous Tier 1 suppliers and non-automotive customers.

GM Truck Group and three GM passenger-car plants are using CM4D, as is the GM Shanghai Buick and van plant and the GM do Brasil Blue Macaw plant, he says. DaimlerChrysler plants in Mexico, Canada, Michigan and Illinois also are using the software. Ford recently signed on to employ CM4D in its Jaguar plant in Halewood, U.K., he points out, and QMC has a bid pending at GM-Saab's Trollhattan plant in Sweden.

"We have one format that looks at what the part was designed to be and what it actually is," he says. "Then we analyze the data and produce engineering reports to demonstrate where variations come from," he says.

Armed with CM4D and its other capabilities, QMC now is convinced it has the necessary services to eliminate many of the glitches that turn up when plants and suppliers are tooling up to build new vehicles or components.

A chief goal is to emulate the so-called "functional build" methods employed so successfully by the Japanese. "Functional build saves dollars on die costs, but the big deal is time saved reaching the market," he says. "Under this process you go from blueprints to dies. You get the tolerances and put the parts together. That forces die makers to make their dies to print. The Japanese only change what has to be changed. They measure early and then control the process, constantly checking to make sure the dies are accurate.

"In America, it's measure, measure, measure, and that takes time."

Speed to market, of course, has become the Holy Grail for automakers as they try to one-up their competitors in an increasingly finicky market.

"You can't build 50 prototypes anymore if you want to turn out a new vehicle in 24 months (compared with 36 and 48 months only a few years ago)," says Mr.Mahrle. "It takes too long and costs too much; we figure 80% of the cost is in the up-front stage."

Using "digital manufacturing" techniques starting with product development, he visualizes shaving at least six months from product approval to body-in-white assembly of components that fit together properly as designed, eliminating what can be costly starts and stops and assuring higher quality.

"The big bang is e-to-e (engineering to engineering); that's where the money is, not in purchasing," he maintains.