One of the issues that has certainly gained in both visibility and importance as a consequence of the Toyota recalls is that of complexity. This complexity takes a number of forms but can be categorized into two buckets: Process and Product. It is not enough to try to simplify (although simplification tends to be advantageous). Rather, it is essential to do two things that are seemingly at opposite sides of the spectrum: Look at the granular level and simultaneously look at the whole, for both process and product.
I recently talked with Fred Thomas, the Automotive Industry director for Apriso (apriso.com), a company that develops manufacturing operations software. (I've known Thomas for a long time, going back to 2000, when the publication did an e-business conference—doesn't that seem quaint nowadays: "e-business"?) Thomas told me about the implementation of the company's software at the new General Motors Brownstown Battery Assembly Plant (Brownstown, MI).
The plant assembles battery packs from the lithium-ion cells that are provided by Compact Power (compactpower.com), a subsidiary of LG Chem. The batteries are being used for the 2011 Chevrolet Volt extended-range hybrid electric vehicle. Clearly, the Volt is the highest-visibility vehicle to be coming from GM, and quite possibly the highest-visibility vehicle to be coming from any global vehicle manufacturer for the next few years. So while they undoubtedly take care with every product they build, you've got to believe that GM is taking particular care with the Volt. The software system essentially tracks the process and the products from delivery dock to loading dock. It keeps a record of each process step as the cells are assembled into modules, and it provides alerts should it be determined through quality checks that something is drifting out of spec. There is an as-built record for each assembly. This is important for traceability. Or, said another way: If something were to go wrong in the field, there would be comprehensive information available as to not only a particular assembly, but the assemblies that were produced at the same time.
That is what I consider to be the granular level. Make no mistake, while I am confident that both GM and LG Chem engineers have done their utmost to simplify the batteries, it is still a complex product in and of itself. And it is going into a system that is even more complicated.
But let's leave the Volt out of this. Consider any contemporary vehicle, be it a car or truck. There has been an unwavering developmental change from the mechanical to the electronic in vehicles—and I am not talking about hybrids or electric vehicles, but even a base model from any make on a dealer's lot right now. Powertrain, chassis, body, infotainment, interiors—all of these areas have become in some way electrical and probably digital. The engine and the transmission are controlled by computers for everything from emissions control to fuel mixing to shift points. There are sensors on the tires and wheels for everything from proper inflation to assuring that understeer or oversteer won't result in the inability to steer (as in oops! off the road). Brakes? More sensors, and actuators that are controlled with remarkable speed to assure appropriate engagement of the binders. Headlamps are fitted with electric motors to control the direction of the beam predicated on steering direction. Windshield wipers are controlled by sensors that detect precipitation. Powered seats—undoubtedly heated, possibly cooled—are becoming as prevalent as powered windows (and when's the last time you saw a new car with window cranks?). And when it comes to the audio system, not only are there the obligatory acronyms—AM/FM/CD/DVD/MP3/etc.—but you're probably considered to be completely behind the times if you don't have a navigation system, and one that is voice activated.
All of this is good. All of this represents progress. But all of this is when we get to the place where there needs to be a holistic view of the product. There are most certainly interactions that occur at the bus level and in the electromagnetic spectrum. And while each of these may be absolutely fit for use at the granular level, what happens when there are indirect interactions at a higher level? It's one thing if you're driving along listening to the radio and the smart phone in your pocket causes static to be heard in the speakers as it is downloading your email and still another thing if the consequences of some interactions go well beyond that.
Some people can think at the granular level. Some are proverbial "big picture" people. But as technology develops apace, there needs to be a synthesis. This isn't a case of either-or, but all (which goes beyond just "both").