By on July 21, 2011

Why was Honda as much hit as Toyota by the March11 earthquake and tsunami? Doesn’t Honda have the bulk of its production outside of Japan? How could Nissan avoid most of the damage, even with an engine factory close to Fukushima?

It was a bit like a roulette game, and it involved a lot of chips.  According to industry talk in Japan, Nissan had taken a large supply of ECU chips before the quake. Honda and Toyota were waiting for their just-in-time delivery.  Honda and Toyota received most of their engine controller chips from one chipmaker, Renesas. Two weeks after the catastrophe, we had pointed out that Renesas and its damaged fab near the epicenter would turn into a major bottleneck. What’s more, Honda had no idea.

Honda bought its engine computers from three different companies, Keihin, Denso and Hitachi Automotive. Honda thought that it was well diversified. What  Honda did not realize at first was that the chips in the controllers were all from the same company: Renesas.

“Before the quake, automakers were trying to diversify their suppliers,” writes The Nikkei [sub] today. “But the troubles at Renesas revealed that when they looked farther down the supply chain — at indirect suppliers — they had in fact actually been relying on single firms for certain components.”

Honda did not have a problem with its V6 engines, which use chips by U.S.  Freescale Semiconductor. More that 80 percent of Honda’s cars volume is small and midsize cars. They usually use in-line four-cylinder engines, and it turned out than in most of their ECUs were microcontrollers supplied by Renesas.

Starting this fall, Honda will begin to use microcontrollers from other manufacturers for some of its models. What’s more there is a drive under way that seeks to standardize common parts across the Japanese industry, and microcontrollers are the ideal target. The firmware in the controllers can change, but the chips can be supplied from multiple manufacturers.


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17 Comments on “Japanese Parts Paralysis: Bad Bets With Chips...”

  • avatar

    It’s great to see such quick action to eliminate potential problems they could have. It’s this kind of thinking that shows how the Japanese manufacturers are really a cut above.

    • 0 avatar

      @GS650G: Really? If they were that swift, you would think they would have figured this out before any disasters struck…

    • 0 avatar

      This prooves nothing of the sort, except industry parity.

      During Carmegeddon, the Detroit team had a much more monumental triage task to manage the stabilization of injured suppliers and the soft-landing of the terminal ones.

      I participated on the front-lines of these actions; I know.

      What it really shows, is that OEM’s don’t transfer the risk of such issues by just transferring the responsibility to the Tier-1. It shows that an OEM should really be managing risk far down the supply chain, perhaps even (and this is made easy by modern databases and enterprise s/w) down to the raw-material level.

  • avatar

    “The firmware in the controllers can change, but the chips can be supplied from multiple manufacturers.”

    This is significantly harder than it might appear at first; I know firsthand. These aren’t piston rings or fuel pumps we’re talking about here.

    • 0 avatar

      Yep, not as easy as it sounds.

      Also standardizing automotive software and promoting interchangeability is what AUTOSAR(AUTomotive Open System ARchitecture)is for. And both Toyota and Honda are AUTOSAR members, and Renesas makes AUTOSAR MCAL (Microcontroller Abstraction Layer) chips.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d be surprised if they can really do it. Each FAB company usually has its own libraries for the gate structures customized for their fab processes, and what results is that a “simple recompile”, usually results in previously unseen bugs cropping up in a design produced at one fab, that had not been seen from another fab (besides the changes required in the design language to recompile on a different fab’s toolset).

      The company I work for suffers this in any new design that goes to two different fabs. It’s physics & proprietary library software, unfortunately…

      And since respinning a chip until you get identical results for the same software is insanely expensive in terms of both time & money, you usually end up revving the software instead (firmware is actually just software, but typically considered more difficult or less desirable to change — ie., field reflash of critical control code required to boot an OS, etc. usually results in fallout).

  • avatar

    Another example of Just In Time becoming Just Too Late. Given the crazy power available from OTS Intel and AMD microprocessors, I don’t know why they aren’t using these with some real time OS to control the engine and other electronic systems. Why the special microcontrolers?

    • 0 avatar

      Intel and AMD microprocessors are way too complex and expensive for the automotive microcontroller market. Most are also not rated for operating in the more stringent automotive temperature range.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t really think this is a indictment of JIT in Japan, it turns out that the sub-sub contractor was being used by the all of the sub contractors. It’s great business for the sub-sub contractor but horrible production strategy.

      Now, if you want to rant about JIT not being a good idea in a country as large as the US, I probably wouldn’t argue with you. It’s one thing in a small country like Japan, where the suppliers and the end users are (practically) next door neighbors. It’s an entirely different matter when you’re on the east coast of the US and your client is 400, 800 or 1200 miles away.

      I can’t imagine that the lowered cost of not having inventory on hand isn’t eaten up by freight bills when sub-sub contractor’s production lines develop hitches and can’t ship as normal.

      • 0 avatar

        the thing I find odd is that there are different sub-contractors selling the same parts to the auto-makers, you would think the auto-makers would negotiate price directly with whomever owns the parts factory for the lowest price, instead of paying a sub-contractor’s mark-up.

  • avatar

    I think the point everyone misses is that engine control processors are incredibly complex and specialized animials. In fact, only Renesas, Freescale, and Infineon have chips that are widely applicable to the application. And they all have very different hardware paradigms for spark, fuel delivery, HEGO, and knock sensing. So, as often is the case, the OEM will specify which of the three to use (and if it’s a Japanese company, Renesas gets the biz 8 out of 10 times), and the tier 1s will architect thier boxes around that particular chip family.

    The only way to diversify in this arena is to develop your engine control architecture in triplicate… No software will be interachangable, and all of your ECUs end up costing more. Your customers will not pay extra for a Tsunami-proof production strategy.

    That is why it doesn’t happen… trust me.

  • avatar

    Since it isn’t computers, what is holding up Odysesy production?

  • avatar
    Andy D

    What you need is redundant diversity. Everything in fiber optic ring topology is done that way. Power supplies too. It is expensive, but as reliable as can be.

    • 0 avatar
      Chicago Dude

      So you can have permanently more expensive cars OR have tight supplies and delayed production for 6 months in the rarest of times when there is a massive catastrophe?

      I think I know which option is more likely to play out.

  • avatar
    slow kills

    You mean they were buying badge-engineered parts?

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