‘A Ticking Time Bomb’

Limited supplier pool complicates deadly air bag recall, endangers lives with delays

In March 2012, Angelina Sujata rear-ended a car in Columbia, SC, at about 25 miles per hour. She felt a sharp pain and later said: "I had a hole in my chest clear enough to see the bone."1 Doctors at a local hospital removed pieces of metal from Sujata’s chest, and a year later, she received a recall notice for her 2001 Honda Civic that was involved in the crash, indicating the car’s air bag was defective.2

The air bag was from Japanese air bag supplier Takata Corp. At the time of Sujata’s accident, no one believed her injuries could be caused by the air bag.

"Everyone kept telling me air bags don’t do that," Sujata said. "The problem is, these ones are (sic), and that’s not alright."3

It wasn’t until 2015 that Takata admitted there was widespread danger of its air bags exploding and sending metal shrapnel flying at passengers. Today, the Takata air bag recall is a global crisis: It’s the largest recall in U.S. history and affects more than 100 million vehicles worldwide.

Fourteen deaths and more than 100 injuries are linked to the faulty devices. A cause of the defect was found to be the air bag’s inflator—which uses ammonium nitrate—that can rupture due to sensitivity to humidity.4

As the recall continues to expand, millions of people are receiving recall notices warning their air bags could kill them, but when they call a dealership to have the part replaced, they’re told they must wait—sometimes years—until the parts are available.5

Jon Linkov, a Consumer Reports automotive editor, explained this is because there are only a few air bag suppliers and no laws to prevent automakers from using Takata air bags as replacements. This means car owners could wait months and then receive yet another defective air bag.6

Another layer of complexity was added to the recalls after the U.S. National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it would institute a phased recall over the next three years—a decision made after uncovering the nature of the defect.

Cause of instability

Since 1989, air bags have been required in U.S. vehicles and save about 2,500 lives annually. They rely on compressed propellants—placed inside metal tubes called inflators—which ignite and become a gas that fills a bag in milliseconds.7

Air bag manufacturers each develop their own propellant compounds. In 1998, Takata engineers met to review whether they should try using ammonium nitrate—a compound that was cheaper to produce but less stable.

Mark Lillie, a former Takata propellant engineer, said during the meeting, "If we go forward with this, somebody will be killed."8 Despite hearing similar warnings, Takata moved forward and started using the compound in its inflators.

In May, three independent investigations found ammonium nitrate propellant to be the root cause of Takata’s air bag defects: Without an additive to prevent moisture absorption, the compound degrades after years of exposure to humid air and temperature fluctuations. This can cause the propellant to explode too forcefully and spray metal shards.9 By 2019, Takata must prove to regulators that its air bags with the additive drying agents are safe.10

During investigations, it also was discovered that Takata had manipulated its inflators’ testing data. "Takata provided inaccurate, incomplete and misleading information to regulators for nearly a decade," said NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas. "Had they told the truth, Takata could have prevented this from becoming a global crisis."11

Weighing the risks

In June, a U.S. Senate Commerce Committee report found at least four automakers were continuing to install defective air bags in new and recalled vehicles, and these would need to be recalled. Regulators, however, said the devices were not immediate threats because it would take time for them to deteriorate.12

This led the NHTSA in May to implement an unprecedented "just-in-time recall" that will take place during the next three and a half years. Manufacturers of affected vehicles will send recall notices in five waves—each wave starting right before inflators are prone to develop the defect. The oldest inflators in the hottest climates—the riskiest ones—are being recalled first, and the recall is expected to take until 2019 to complete.13

Some vehicle models, however, have higher risks of an inflator exploding. In June, Honda spokesman Marcos Frommer told owners of model years 2001 to 2003 to "get them off the road" and "drive them right to the dealer and get them repaired." NHTSA found those models contained a manufacturing defect which caused rupture rates as high as 50%.14

Owners are becoming frustrated with a recall process that tells them not to drive their car but doesn’t offer a reasonable timeline for repairs or other options for transportation. Carolyn Blaney, a Honda CRV owner who was told her air bag couldn’t be fixed for months, fought with her auto dealer to receive a rental car: "For somebody to say, ‘Don’t drive this because you could die,’ [they need to] give me something that I’m not gonna die in right now."

Why the wait?

Today, there are eight air bag suppliers, and replacing bags is a slow process because their designs are unique to each car model. This means suppliers of replacements must create different inflators tailored to the exact configurations of various steering columns and dashboards.15, 16

"You might think … just get another supplier to make the replacement and pop in their design," said Scott Upham, CEO of Valient Market Research and a former Takata employee. "It takes over a year to validate an air bag for each vehicle. It goes through a series of crash tests. It’s simulated millions of times on supercomputers. So, it’s a very involved process that involves the automakers, the safety systems supplier and government approvals."17

Upham also explained that Takata uses different technology than its competitors, and eventually most replacement air bags will come from those competitors. "Problem is, not only do they have to make the replacement parts, but they have to make air bags for all the new cars, too," Upham said.18 About 70% of the replacement inflators are being manufactured by Takata’s competitors.19

Making contact

With life-or-death stakes, ensuring people receive and respond to recall notices is critical, and automakers are getting creative. Honda is making phone calls, using social media and has put messages on stadium scoreboards. It is even hiring private detectives to find owners of older vehicles: This is, in part, because another challenge to recall efforts is that used-car dealers are not required to keep track of recalls for vehicles on their lots.20, 21

A recent study tried to discover what recall messages boosted the chance a car would be brought in for repairs: It found words mattered, particularly those "expressing remorse for inconvenience and threats to safety," and the shorter the notice, the better its chance of success. NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind said a person’s economic situation also contributed to whether he or she will prioritize a recall fix.22

Elizabeth Tournas received a recall notice and ignored it, but reconsidered after her car’s dealership mentioned it during an oil change. "I realized how severe the damage would be, not even to my car but to myself … and anyone in my car," Tournas said. "There’s no way I’m going to drive around—because at that point it’s like a ticking time bomb."23

—compiled by Tyler Gaskill, assistant editor


  1. Jeff Glor, "Major Air Bag Recall Leaves Questions Unanswered," CBSnews.com, May 19, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/major-recall-questions.
  2. Susan Berfield, Craig Trudell, Margaret Cronin Fisk and Jeff Plungis, "Sixty Million Car Bombs: Inside Takata’s Air Bag Crisis," Bloomberg Businessweek, June 2, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/inside-air-bag-crisis.
  3. Glor, "Major Air Bag Recall Leaves Questions Unanswered," see reference 1.
  4. Jeff Plungis, "Takata: The Longest Recall," Bloomberg Businessweek, May 12, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/bloomberg-longest-recall.
  5. Ibid.
  6. "Consumer Reports: Takata Air Bag Recall Update," Texomashoepage.com, June 29, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/consumer-reports-update.
  7. Berfield, "Sixty Million Car Bombs: Inside Takata’s Air Bag Crisis," see reference 2.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ryan Beene, "NHTSA Tests Just-in-Time Recalls," Automotive News, May 9, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/just-in-time-recalls.
  10. Berfield, "Sixty Million Car Bombs: Inside Takata’s Air Bag Crisis," see reference 2.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Hiroko Tabuchi, "Automakers Still Selling Cars With Defective Takata Air Bags," New York Times, June 1, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/air-bags-in-new-cars.
  13. Beene, "NHTSA Tests Just-in-Time Recalls," see reference 9.
  14. Chris Woodyard and Brent Snavely, "NHTSA: Get Air Bags in Older Hondas Fixed Now, Dangerous to Drive," USA Today, July 1, 2016.
  15. Sonari Glinton, "Airbag Replacement Backlog Could Take Years to Ease," NPR.org, June 22, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/takata-years-to-ease.
  16. Plungis, "Takata: The Longest Recall," see reference 4.
  17. Glinton, "Airbag Replacement Backlog Could Take Years to Ease," see reference 15.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Berfield, "Sixty Million Car Bombs: Inside Takata’s Air Bag Crisis," see reference 2.
  20. Dave Versical, "Little Things Count in a Recall Letter," Automotive News, March 28, 2016, http://tinyurl.com/little-things-count-recall.
  21. Berfield, "Sixty Million Car Bombs: Inside Takata’s Air Bag Crisis," see reference 2.
  22. Versical, "Little Things Count in a Recall Letter," see reference 20.
  23. Glinton, "Airbag Replacement Backlog Could Take Years to Ease," see reference 15.

Who’s Who in Q

NAME: Francis Ken Josiah.

RESIDENCE: Glendale, AZ.

EDUCATION: Master’s degree in business management from Emmanuel College in Boston.

INTRODUCTION TO QUALITY: While working at Cardinal Health in Illinois, Ken Josiah restored the uninterrupted flow of more than $1 million of medical products with a highly regulated shelf life from dock to stock for two international locations in France and Australia, within the acceptable time. This environment provided the first insight into a value chain and its impact on the cost of quality to customers, shareholders and employees.

CURRENT JOB: Business consultant with Nationwide Insurance’s Excess and Surplus Operations Division, managing a new quality program to support finance and underwriting divisions.

PREVIOUS JOBS: Commissioned officer of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Sierra Leone and graduate of Fort Bragg’s Special Forces Training in Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations (commonly known as PsyOps); supply chain and inventory management at Sears Roebuck and Cardinal Health; associate vice president with the consulting services group at JP Morgan; and contract compliance manager at Bank of America.

ASQ ACTIVITIES: Served as the publicity chair of the ASQ Phoenix chapter.

OTHER ACTIVITIES: Ken Josiah is the primary driver and a creative talent behind a divisionwide transformational initiative to create, evolve and sustain a quality culture. He is also chair of Sierra Leone Ex-Service Personnel, a diaspora organization of former servicemen and women of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces, seeking to improve the welfare of former service personnel, war widows and orphans in Sierra Leone.

PUBLICATIONS: Author of Trial by Rebellion (Llumina Press, 2012), a book about political turbulence in the West African subregion.

RECENT HONORS: Ken Josiah is the only Sierra Leonean and among the few from Africa to be an ASQ-certified Six Sigma Black Belt.

PERSONAL: Wife, Sia; two children.

QUALITY QUOTE: Quality is not a predefined destination. It is an endless journey in search of perfection.


New Supplier Quality Professional Certification Set

A certified supplier quality professional (CSQP) body of knowledge (BoK) and certification have been developed by ASQ and its Customer-Supplier Division (CSD). The first exams will be offered in October. The CSQP will provide credentials to quality professionals in the growing field of supplier quality engineering across several industries.

Significant changes in the global supply chain landscape over the last several years have increased the need for effective supply chain management. An organization’s supply chain can be a competitive differentiator, but also can be vulnerable to disruption as the business environment becomes more challenging.

Inherent in a successful supply chain strategy is an integrated supply chain process architecture with supply chain professionals who can drive that infrastructure. There are a few different professional organizations that cover a supply chain BoK and offer certifications, but none other than ASQ that cover quality or the role a supplier quality professional provides in the development and deployment of an effective supply chain strategy.

The idea for a quality-centric supply chain certification was first brought to ASQ in 2013. As part of the process to consider a new exam, a market survey completed in May 2014 confirmed a high level of interest in the proposed certification:

  • 67% of respondents agreed there was a need for a certification to validate a professional’s knowledge and proficiency in understanding and applying supplier quality engineering concepts.
  • 69% agreed a CSQP credential would add value to individuals in the marketplace.

To develop the BoK, a job analysis study was completed in July 2015. The study identified seven domains for the BoK and validated the originally proposed skills:

  1. Supplier strategy.
  2. Supplier selection.
  3. Risk management.
  4. Supplier performance monitoring and assessment.
  5. Supplier maintenance and improvement.
  6. Relationship management.
  7. Business governance, and ethics and compliance.

The CSQP BoK will enhance the supplier quality professional’s understanding and comprehension of how the supplier quality function fits into the supply chain process—from product development to supplier qualification to supplier monitoring to communications.

A team of several supplier quality professionals from the CSD is working on the Certified Supplier Quality Professional Handbook, which will be published by ASQ Quality Press later this year.

For more information about the new certification, visit asq.org/cert/supplier-quality.

Mark Durivage is managing principal consultant at Quality Systems Compliance LLC. He earned his master’s degree in quality management from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti. He is an ASQ fellow and holds several ASQ certifications: quality auditor, biomedical auditor, hazard analysis and critical control points auditor, pharmaceutical good manufacturing practices professional, Six Sigma Black Belt and manager of quality/organizational excellence. Durivage also has authored several books published by ASQ Quality Press.

Ursula Williams is the director of supplier quality at Brooks Automation in Chelmsford, MA. She is a senior member of ASQ and holds ASQ quality engineer, auditor and technician certifications. She was on ASQ’s Certification Board from 2004 to 2015 and is the secretary of the ASQ Customer-Supplier Division. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of South Carolina in Columbia where she focused on research and statistics.


Division Events Scheduled

Several events organized by ASQ divisions are scheduled in the coming months.

  • The ASQ Reliability Division will hold a certified reliability engineering preparation session on Aug. 24, an accelerated life testing course on Sept. 27 and its Accelerated Stress Testing and Reliability Conference on Sept. 28. Find specifics at http://asqrd.org.
  • The ASQ Annual Joint Technical Communities Conference will be held Sept. 15-16. Visit www.asqjointtcconference.org for more details.
  • The ASQ Biomedical Division will hold statistics training on Sept. 27. More information can be found at http://asq.org/biomed.
  • The ASQ Inspection Division’s fall conference will be held Sept. 29-30. Visit http://asq.org/inspect for more details.


New ASQ Medal Honors Hromi

ASQ has unveiled a new medal honoring John D. Hromi, a past ASQ president and honorary member who died last year.

Hromi was a professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Quality and Applied Statistics Center, which was named for him in 1992 because of his well-established reputation as an international authority in industrial statistics and quality control.

He had worked at the New York university since 1981, having served as professor and the center’s executive director.

The Hromi Medal will recognize individuals who have made significant and noteworthy contributions to the science of inspection and the advancement of the inspection profession.

Nominations are due Oct. 1. For more information, visit http://asq.org/about-asq/awards/hromi.html.

ASQ News

CALL FOR CASE STUDIES: ASQ is looking for new case studies to appear in the ASQ Knowledge Center. Interested authors who would like to share their organizations’ recent examples of successful quality improvement projects can contact Adam Wise at awise@asq.org for more details.

NEW CASE STUDY: ASQ has published a new case study about a concept called "ideality," or the ideal state of a system in which all functions are carried out without problem. Using real-life examples, the author explains how ideality can be achieved. To access the case study, visit http://tinyurl.com/ideality-case-study.

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