By on June 10, 2011

When I stopped working for Volkswagen in 2005, they had some 400,000 parts, or “numbers” as they are called in industry parlance, in their central warehouse in Kassel. With each car, the number climbed higher. On the other hand, some 5 percent were usually out of stock. The launch of each car caused raw nerves in the parts department. When a part was faulty, dealers and production manager were at war for parts. The production managers usually won, and blamed the dealers for shoddy service.

It’s tough enough to keep the hungry beasts at assembly lines and in workshops supplied with parts during peacetime. If a volcano over Iceland blows ash, or if a huge tsunami wipes out a good deal of Japan, it turns into parts paranoia. Now, Japan’s formerly powerful METI, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, is using the Tohoku disaster to force the Japanese car industry to standardize a lot of the parts it uses.

“Under the lead of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, manufacturers of automobiles, parts and materials will look into ways to share more components across the various vehicles produced by the automakers,” reports The Nikkei [sub].

One area is chips. Shortages of microcontrollers turned into a big problem after the tsunami. METI is now considering setting up a committee to discuss the standardization of microcontrollers and other semiconductor-related parts.

This is good news and bad news for the auto industry. The good news is that if a disaster strikes, that chip, battery terminal, brake pad, or cylinder head bolt can be bought from another manufacturer. Larger runs of commodity parts would lower their cost and shorten development times.

The bad news is that it could kill a golden goose. Selling replacement parts at huge mark-ups provides major income for automakers and dealers. Large automakers have it down to a science how to make a part slightly different, just to frustrate the efforts of those who deal in replacement parts. A standardized parts bin eventually will be a bonanza for the Boschs, AutoZones or Pep Boys of this world. It would also lower the barrier of entry for new competition.

Therefore, says The Nikkei, “some in the auto industry worry that using more common parts will shift the focus in the autoparts market too much in the direction of price, exposing Japanese autoparts makers to intense competition from low-cost producers in China and elsewhere.”


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26 Comments on “Japan’s Government Wants Standardized Autoparts...”

  • avatar

    The era of cheap Chinese parts will start, and the cars will break more often.
    Also, would that policy apply also to more upscale cars, like Lexus or Infiniti? It would not make sense to have low-grade parts in expensive cars.

    • 0 avatar

      We’re talking about commodity parts: bolts, sensors, etc. For example: my ’85 Jaguar needed a new charcoal canister for the emissions system. A new canister costs upwards of a hundred bucks and contains about two dollars worth of charcoal. Stupid, but standard operating procedure in the industry.

      Presumably OEMs who are warrantying their cars won’t be buying lowest-bidder junk, there’s no reason standardized parts can’t be of high quality.

    • 0 avatar
      Mr. K

      There is no reason why some parts like brake rotors (steel= cheap, iron = long warp free life) brake pads (quiet, dust free, long life, higher fade resistance), and wiper blades to mention 3 off the top of my head could be exactly the same size and bolt pattern ext yet have quality optimized for each application.

      That said most parts should be the same quality Audi or Kia…

    • 0 avatar
      SVX pearlie

      Lower cost doesn’t mean higher failures.

      Look at the Chinese motorcycle industry – they have a specification-driven, modular approach.

      Also, you’re aware that Benz builds cars in China, and Boeing builds parts there as well, right?

      • 0 avatar

        Chinese motorcycles? BAD example… Why? Well, one of the guys at work opened a shop selling Chinese knock-offs of Honda scooters, dirt bikes and ATC’s… the result? Vehicles that broke constantly, with a supplier who never had parts. My son bought a Chinese generator: within a week, the pushrod tubes self-destructed… later, he had carb problems… he sold the Chinese generator, and bought a Honda… so, my real-world experience tells me that cheap, Chinese manufactured parts would be BAD for consumers.

      • 0 avatar
        SVX pearlie

        In China, you get what you pay for. If he had done his homework beyond looking at the price per 40′ shipping container, he would have done much better on product quality.

        For the rest of the world, Chinese motorcycles are taking over. Particularly where labor is cheaper and hardware is expensive. People who shop smartly have good results with reliability

      • 0 avatar

        This is why brands are still important. A good brand, regardless of where it came from, will have excellent quality. Most of my stuff now are made in China and they satisfy me quite well.

  • avatar

    I see this as good and bad. When the parts are standard, they should be quite good and reliable. How will this effect new parts coming out that would be better than the old parts? Is this going to hurt progress on cars?

    • 0 avatar
      SVX pearlie

      Why should trunk linkages or ABS sensors or brake pads not be standardized and modular? What about wheel patterns & bolt spacing? Why shouldn’t every 5-lug wheel fit every 5-stud hub?

  • avatar

    I think we should go back to round 7″ headlights. Only a few dollars compared to hundreds for those fancy new ones.

  • avatar

    So, instead of having mis-engineered and mis-assembled gas pedals for just Toyota vehicles (CTS as the supplier), the Japanese government would rather standarize that pedal design across all vendors and be used by all manufacturers.

    Makes perfect sense to me.

  • avatar

    If I were king, there would be a catalog containing maybe two dozen or so “standard” water pumps (the pump itself, not necessarily the housing), and these would cover virtually every internal-combustion engine application out there. Neither of these things will ever happen!

    The SAE standards are about as close as we’ve been able to get in the domestic auto industry, at least we have common electrical fuses, tire and battery sizes, along with more recent developments such as serial data bus standards.

    The biggest problem with standardization is the barrier that it presents to improvements in design, materials, and manufacturing technologies. As our vehicles become more and more sophisticated and complex, it becomes even more challenging to set and agree upon standards, as anybody in the computer or software business can attest to!

  • avatar

    Actually, with controllers you could have a standard part and move the software (which would still be proprietary) off to a ROM of some sort. That would be copyrighted which would ensure the rights of the automakers vis-a-vis competitors. It would also foster innovation because it would standardize the development and operational environments which would speed enhancement.

  • avatar

    Honda will fight this tooth and nail. They don’t even standardize parts across a single model in a single year. For example in many cases the calipers, pads, and/or rotors will be different between a DX and an EX and a LX or have different stuff between the 2dr and the 4dr, or sedan and hatch version. All certainly done to keep the aftermarket at bay and keep the price of their replacement parts very high. It just doesn’t make much sense for the aftermarket to gear up to produce the parts that will have such a small sales volume. Contrast that with say Ford or GM which design a brake system that works for the heaviest model, use it on the lighter model and keep in in production for 5, 10 or even more years.

  • avatar

    This will eventually inhibit product differentiation and competitiveness amongst Japanese mfrs, and will drive the engineers crazy. And we thought the Corolla was already the definition of an appliance; it will only get worse.

    • 0 avatar
      John Fritz

      Agreed. Will we end up with one manufacturer making a rolling chassis and selling them to other automakers to have them just drape sheet metal on them?

    • 0 avatar
      SVX pearlie

      Actually, the opposite should happen. Instead of building 20 versions of things that nobody ever sees or touches, the effort can be refocused on things that people actually do see and touch, or refining how the thing feels and reacts.

  • avatar

    “With each new car, the number (of parts) climbed higher”

    There’s a planned obsolescence usually at 10 years. Got a set of the ’86 SVO sealed headlight, turnsignals and biplane spoiler with CHMSL from the dealer back in ’95. No one’s repopping them.

    If starters and alternators were more standardized, I’d be less likely to go to the dealer if I just need to keep my car running. Mobile repair guys already know what used parts interchange. Nippon Denso makes starters that interchange between Chryslers and Toyotas for example.

  • avatar

    Great news for car theives.

  • avatar

    “The bad news is that it could kill a golden goose. Selling replacement parts at huge mark-ups provides major income for automakers and dealers.”

    Very interesting point. But maybe these old-school businesses which depend on artificial barriers to entry are the ones which nature has selected to die anyway… the automotive equivalent of K-Tel music records in the MP3 era.

  • avatar

    EVs have much less parts.

  • avatar

    This strikes me as discouraging innovation. It also reminds me a little of British Leyland.

    I can’t see the Japanese car companies using generic components. They rely too heavily on statistical quality control. It would mean giving up too much control over their vendors

    Perhaps it’s counterintuitive but GM was most profitable when the different divisions each made their own engines, frames, and a whole raft of components unique to their brands. Not very efficient in terms of amortizing costs but somehow it worked.

  • avatar

    My experience in the used-auto parts industry assisted my decision to buy a Chevy pick-up I intended to keep as long as possible.

    Headed for seven years of ownership but the long-term benefits remain for the future; an amply supply of used and new parts with costs, as I observed in the passed, typically decreasing with few exceptions, even after 20 or more years under the truck’s belt.

    I did not anticipate the possible changing to a long wheelbase cargo van as a potential dwelling for my increasingly dim-appearing old age.

    I bought the truck after the preparations for my mid-life career change (well, no real career to change)that turned out to be a failure based on several external events outside my control.

    Oh well.

    Either a Ford or Chevy van despite the sad lack of opinions from my repeating requests for input and a handy link so your likely valuable opinion could be placed to ensure I saw it.

    Oh well, such is life in our modern USA society.

    Standardization can be a wondrous cost saver and increase productivity at several levels but observe the available graphs, charts, etc. available upon the Web using good sources showing productivity leading to increased wealth transfer from the productivity going into the pockets of the few while those at lower levels do not benefit; even when the productivity can be traced to the output of the lower-paid lower-class folks represented within the graph.

  • avatar

    Even though I like the abstract idea of parts standardization, I have no doubt that government bureaucrats will somehow screw this up and makes things worse for both the consumer and manufacturer.

    I would think making as many parts standard across product lines as possible would eventually be a net gain for the manufacturer since it really doesn’t seem to slow down the aftermarket manufacturers making replacement parts to have so many variations, at least in my experience. Dealer sourced OEM parts will always have a market to those who have their cars serviced at dealerships and from shops and consumers that want higher quality parts.

  • avatar

    I’ve been selling auto parts for twenty years now at a Ford dealer, and the proliferation of parts numbers has been ridiculous. We used to have two alternators that basically fit everything, and one power steering pump. Now, even on vehicles with the same engine, like for the 4.0 v6 in the Mustang, Explorer, and Ranger, there will be different parts for each car, when you think it would be easier, and cheaper to just have one set up for that engine.

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