Saturday, June 11, 2016

Weekend longreads: bosses have no power over phase changes

I have expressed my horror and fascination with the Takata airbag recall, and how it is really deeply about the chemistry of phases of ammonium nitrate (and water content, apparently.) A compelling long article at Bloomberg Businessweek by Susan Berfield, Craig Trudell, Margaret Cronin Fisk and Jeff Plungis is worth your time: 
Ammonium nitrate was about one-tenth the price of tetrazole, according to Upham, who also reviewed industry patents. But ammonium nitrate had a critical flaw that he says led other air bag makers to give up on it: Ammonium nitrate has five phases of varying density that make it hard to keep stable over time. A propellant made with ammonium nitrate would swell and shrink with temperature changes, and eventually the tablet would break down into powder. Water and humidity would speed the process. Powder burns more quickly than a tablet, so an air bag whose propellant had crumbled would be likely to deploy too aggressively. The controlled explosion would be just an explosion. “Everybody went down a certain road, and only Takata went down another road,” says Jochen Siebert, who’s followed the air bag industry since the 1990s and is now managing director of JSC Automotive Consulting. “If you read the conference papers from back then, you can actually see that people said, ‘No, you shouldn’t. It’s dangerous.’ ” 
When Lillie and other Moses Lake engineers met with their ASL colleagues in December 1998 to review a new design using ammonium nitrate, Lillie says they were told the phase stability problem had been solved. He rejected the design nonetheless. ASL wasn’t able to provide documented evidence of the safety of its product, he said in a January 2016 deposition, taken as part of a personal injury suit against Takata and Honda. “Never any evidence, never any test results, never any test reports, nothing to substantiate they had overcome the phase stability problem,” Lillie testified.
Sadly, the bosses at Takata ignored the bad news, and pushed forward. I hope to never be in the situation at the Takata engineers found themselves in, and if I do, I hope I have the courage to speak out.  


  1. After the thirteenth use of the phrase "isolated incident", I got the strong impression that Takada is using that phrase for something very different than what most people take it to mean and even different from the version used by university administrators after something bad has happened, though close.

    It sounds like the same mental flaws went into this as Valeant and pet food outsourcing to China - someone tells us we have a magical scheme to make money and if the numbers don't add up or don't exist, they must be wrong - the industry version of the "management hat". With this kind of logic, how did we ever manage to not be Albania?

  2. You can't bully the laws of nature. Reminds me of the same kind of stupidity that caused the Challenger disaster.

  3. That would have been my thought, too - sounds like a repeat of "The Management Hat". It reminds me as well of some of issues with pet food from China, generic drugs, etc. - companies wanted stuff cheaper than it could possibly be delivered, and didn't really care when it was "delivered" what it actually was. When you live in the short term, you only live in the short term - unfortunately, thanks to Takata, some people didn't make it that long. When this is SOP, how do we ever make useful things or function as a society?

    How many times can you say "isolated incident" in response to accidents involving your company's products before I can officially conclude that a phenomenon is causally linked to bad systems at an organization [in this case, either a lack of or a surplus of management oversight] rather than being the random uncorrelated events that the phrase asserts? It didn't take me very many to conclude that of Manoa, and I'm pretty sure Takata has exceeded that threshold by a wide margin.

    1. Sorry for the repeat - the first one was on my wife's iPad and I thought Blogger round-filed it.