A new technique to relate a vehicle’s technical performance with customer satisfaction may save General Motors significant time and cost and may lead to better product decisions, according to University of Missouri-Rolla researchers.
"Successful automobile companies meet or exceed customer expectations," says Dr. Ken Ragsdell, professor of engineering management at UMR and director of the university’s Design Engineering Center. "Today companies like GM realize they have to have flexible product development processes. For example, introducing a product variant like a removable roof or flexible hard top shouldn’t take the same amount of time as a completely new vehicle."
Ragsdell and two graduate students will spend the next year creating a methodology for GM product developers to use to determine what adjustments should be made during the development process to most economically meet new customer perceptions and what impact a supplier’s performance characteristics has on customer satisfaction.
"You constantly have to face these two questions in product development," Ragsdell says. "And it’s not a static world. Suppliers are changing and you hope they are improving, but it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes a supplier tries something to save a nickel and it ends up costing you a dollar."
GM’s current system of customer demand forecasting depends on a process that requires significant data, says project manager Kioumars Paryani, a GM Technical Fellow focused on customer-driven quality methods at the Vehicle Development Research Lab in Warren, Mich. The new, more efficient method developed by UMR researchers would measure the costs of deviating from certain performance measures that would jeopardize customer satisfaction. "Ultimately, if we can do a better job at building cars and trucks, then our public will benefit" Paryani adds.
As the sophistication and maturity of the worldwide buying public increases, the automotive industry is under tremendous pressure to efficiently produce — in a short period of time — high-quality, low-cost products that are tuned to the needs of the buying public.
"If you have perfect fidelity in assessing the needs of your customers and find out with 100 percent accuracy today what they want, but it takes you three years to develop and produce it, it’s too late and you’ve wasted your time and the money it took to develop the new product," Ragsdell explains. "Often a project gets cancelled because the public is fickle; they change their minds and go to another product someone else has introduced. It’s a very competitive marketplace."
In order to create their methodology, the researchers will use tools not commonly used in industry, such as pattern recognition. Vivek Jikar of Rolla, Mo., a graduate student in engineering management, will examine how customer attitudes about ride, handling, braking and other performance measures can be translated into design parameters for vehicles using tools of quality engineering.
"We’ll use these tools to go from piece part to system level performance and functionally track performance level," Ragsdell says. "In addition, we’ll use pattern recognition techniques and other tools for diagnosis and forecasting to allow us to develop a model that decision makers can use."
In September, Elizabeth Cudney of Ballwin, Mo., a doctoral student in engineering management at UMR, spent a week in Detroit at GM learning the company’s current process, which provided a baseline to benchmark research activities. "Because the scope of the research is so broad, it will involve frequent client visits and interaction," Cudney adds.