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Mark Phelan: Failure to launch: Why new cars' quality hits the skids

Mark Phelan, Detroit Free Press on

Published in Automotive News

Don't play cards with a guy called "Doc" or buy a car in its first year of production.

After 120 years, you'd think the world's automakers would've mastered the art of getting a new model into production smoothly, but the start of manufacturing -- what car companies frequently call the "launch" -- remains fraught.

A miscalculation can cost an automaker millions of dollars and banjax a meticulously planned campaign to build interest in the new vehicle.

The outside world doesn't notice when launches go well: The factory hums, vehicles get to dealerships on time, happy owners show off new features and boast about fuel economy.

But when launches go bad, the sky falls. New vehicles pile up at the factory awaiting repair; money is wasted advertising vehicles that can't be bought because they haven't made it to dealerships yet; assembly lines fall still; quality slides; complaints rise and CEOs tap dance through explaining profits are down because they mismanaged a core function of the business.

"Getting a launch wrong slows sales momentum and can increase an automaker's costs" for repairs at the factory or after vehicles are sold, IHS Markit senior analyst Stephanie Brinley said. "The biggest risk is losing sales to early adopters who move on to something else."


Automakers' special forces

The best automakers make a science of launching vehicles. They do everything possible to simplify what can be an excruciatingly complex process.

They have launch teams, groups of executives and engineers who parachute in before production of the new vehicle begins. They spend months preparing the assembly line and workers, overseeing the beginning of production and acceleration from a slow, careful start to full-speed manufacturing. Like military special forces, the launch teams then move on to the next hot spot.

General Motors managed the launch of its Silverado and GMC Sierra 1500 light pickups like it was juggling sticks of dynamite. Production began in one plant with a single body style and just a couple of engines. Over the course of nearly a year, GM added models like a chef carefully measuring ingredients into a dish.


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