To gain public's trust, put safety before profits

THE spate of incidents involving Takata airbags a few months ago in some Japanese cars, such as Toyota's and Honda's, has prompted recalls for certain affected models.

While the cause has not been identified, Takata chief executive Shigehisa Takada has publicly stated that age and exposure to heat and humidity were "significant factors" in the failed inflators.

Plaintiffs in Canada recently filed a C$1.9 billion (S$2.1 billion) class action lawsuit against the Japanese company for products which could unintentionally deploy with explosive force and spray occupants with metal shards.

We see safety and reliability issues in many aspects of our lives, not just in the automotive industry, but also in aviation, in electronics, even in our cookware.

Ideally, we should see these problems before the product is released to the market.

Unfortunately, sometimes with disastrous results, we see these failures only when the product is already being used by millions of people.

Most people take it on faith that brands are there to be trusted, even with their lives.

If a company fails to live up to that expectation, it could lead to the end of that company.

Does anyone still remember a tyre company named Firestone, whose manufacturing process problems led to deadly tyre blowouts in the mid-1990s?

Detecting the root cause of failures for critical components, especially if the failures are intermittent, can be challenging for failure analysis engineers who often try to subject these components to various tests.

The dangerous part is when a certain set of conditions produces a failure that is not part of the test procedure for these components.

Failure analysis engineers often use various techniques, such as using statistics, to determine whether a failure is design-related (meaning it was there from day one), manufacturing-related or materials-related (meaning the reliability could be questionable), or the component itself could be good but not when used in conjunction with others in a system.

Or sometimes, as in the case of the Challenger space shuttle explosion, knowing the unsafe conditions (when not to use the product).

In the case of Challenger, investigators concluded that the very cold weather that morning produced ice on the O-rings, which caused fuel to leak and explode.

Design engineers try to design some redundancy and put in a safety margin when they select a component.

Hence, if a certain amount of stress will be placed on a component, they can choose to double the amount of stress that a component can handle.

Test engineers try to stress the component and see when it breaks. By getting the statistics of failure, they can compute when it needs to be replaced.

Engineering managers try to work with their suppliers and the materials they use, as well as the manufacturing process, to ensure that the product they are making is the safest and best product they can consistently come up with.

Test techniques such as Fault Tree Analysis and Failure Mode Effect Analysis, and the use of statistics, such as Weibull Analysis, often help design and manufacturing engineers make sense of the failures they see to develop better and safer products.

To a test and reliability engineer, a productive workday normally means he has found a new failure in a component, and has started working on a root cause and, eventually, a fix.

Take note that getting to the root cause of why a problem occurs is just as important as fixing it. Because understanding why a problem happens adds to the design engineer's list of things to consider.

The best companies and brands are defined by the amount of engineering and testing they do to ensure that a product that is used by millions is safe and thoroughly tested.

If incidents do happen despite this, praiseworthy companies take it upon themselves to determine the cause and prevent it from happening again.

Take, for example, the intentional tampering and sabotage of Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol painkiller, which led to deaths in the early 1980s, and how it was used by management to redesign its products to be tamper-resistant.

J&J showed the public that it would never place profit over the public's safety, and this helped it bounce back from that tragedy.

Contrast this with the way Merck handled the Vioxx (Rofecoxib) test results for its revolutionary painkiller.

Even when there was statistically significant data to show that there was an increased risk of heart attack and stroke for certain individuals, it still chose to release the drug into the market.

It is easy for companies to be tempted to take shortcuts to go after a quick profit; after all, in many cases, the problem does not show up.

However, when it does show up, the results are often tragic and no amount of finger-pointing and recrimination can make up for what should have been done in the first place.

Trust is then lost, and all that is decided by how a company acts.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer, now a technical consultant for clean energy projects, was a test/product engineer and equipment systems reliability engineer for the chip industry from 1993-2005.