Since its first appearance at the end of the 19th century, the automobile has come a long way not only in its appearance and technical capabilities but also in quality standards. With the improvement of the technology, these vehicles have become faster, easier to operate, and more energy-efficient. However, the initial quality demands have also transformed into standards that are unprecedentedly tough.
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The history of quality control in the auto manufacturing industry covers rather a long period of almost 80 years, starting from 1940s up to the present moment. It involved a number of governmental agencies that passed legislations to improve the system up to its current level.
The first documented set of standards appeared during World War II. It was called Statistical quality control (SQC) and was mostly oriented at compliance with military requirements and procedures due to the necessity posed by the war (Deyo 13). Since there were rather few automobile manufacturers that were able to meet these standards, the Federal War Production Board had to interfere. It sponsored SQC courses across the United States to increase awareness and ensure compliance. As a result, in 1943, the Society of Quality Control Engineers was established in Detroit. After the war, it was known as the Automotive Division of the American Society for Quality Control (ASQC) (Thomas 41-43).
Despite the evident success of the campaign, the majority of SQC managers and departments disappeared from auto manufacturing plants as soon as the war was over. Nevertheless, the system managed to return to the industry in the late 1940s as a result of the ASQC efforts (Deyo 20). However, it was not supported by top managers of automotive enterprises. Neither was it welcomed by production workers since the complexity of the standards did not allow full understanding on their behalf. Furthermore, the focus was shifted from process control and prevention techniques to error detection (Law 62).
Due to the development of space industry in 1960s, some improvements were made in the automotive quality control, too. This happened mainly because the importance of reliability testing was proven by space experiments. One of the most considerable safety events was a new standard signed by the government in 1968. It demanded all car producers should equip front seats with both lap and shoulder seatbelts while rear seats were required to use lap belts (Law 66).
However, already in 1970, the vulnerability of the industry increased dramatically following the oil crisis of 1973 and the recession at the end of the decade. Other exacerbating factors included small and large car debate and strong competition from Japanese manufacturers, demonstrating new quality levels (Deyo 25). The problem was that American auto industry could not discern quality differences between its own products and those offered by competitors. Following the Japanese example, some of the industry leaders added airbags to their cars. However, the success of this measure was rather dubious since no standard was issued.
In 1980s, SQC was revived mainly due to visits to Japan, quality circles, and other practices widely implemented at the majority of factories. Yet, it would be wrong to state that quality improvement was significant as compared 1960s (Thomas 56). Total quality management became the key goal of car manufacturers not earlier than in 1990s.
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The new age has posed new requirements for the American automobile industry owing to the growing customer demand. Moreover, car manufacturers are now required to correspond to the product and process requirements set by the International Organization for Standardization, which makes it inevitable for them to improve their quality levels. Environmental concerns also made their contribution to complicating the procedure (Zorpas and Inglezakis 71).
Deyo, Frederic C. Social Reconstructions of the World Automobile Industry: Competition, Power and Industrial Flexibility. Springer, 2016.
Law, Christopher M. Restructuring the Global Automobile Industry. Taylor & Francis, 2017.
Thomas, Kenneth P. Capital beyond Borders: States and Firms in the Auto Industry, 1960–94. Springer, 2016.
Zorpas, Antonis A., and Vassilis J. Inglezakis. “Automotive Industry Challenges in Meeting EU 2015 Environmental Standard.” Technology in Society, vol. 34, no. 1, 2012, pp. 55-83.