VANCE, Alabama - Stung by quality problems in its first American-made vehicle, Mercedes-Benz is sweeping through its US factory with changes in the way the sport-utility is built.
Plant managers are trying to solve specific recurring problems in the M-class vehicles and are working to arm the plant's 1,800 workers with new problem-solving skills.
Changes took on new urgency this spring when J.D. Power and Associates' 1999 Initial Quality Study ranked the M-class near the bottom of the industry's sport-utilities with 235 problems per 100 vehicles, nearly 100 more than the Lexus RX 300, which topped the luxury sport-utility list.
M-class problems included fit-and-finish - such as fuel tank doors that sagged - as well as design issues such as wind noise.
The Mercedes plant is now 'moving into a new stage,' according to Bill Taylor, president of Mercedes-Benz US International Inc. 'My answer is that we've got to get better, and we're taking steps to get better. We're now going to focus on influencing the process.'
Taylor said his workforce has already identified a variety of improvements that should show big results.
About 60 vehicles a day were coming off the line with improperly aligned fuel doors - the sixth-most-common complaint from M-class owners. Factory workers found that the torque gun used to bolt the doors needed adjustment. This fit-and-finish defect has now been virtually eliminated.
The sunroof was often misaligned, so team members created a new hand-held measuring device resembling a large comb with missing teeth that enables them to install the sunroofs more precisely.
Paint drips were spotted on the rear bodies of 88 percent of the vehicles produced, requiring sanding and touch up. This was caused by paint dripping from the vehicles' open rear passenger doors. Workers were able to put a simple groove in the door to channel away the drips.
Insulation around the rear cargo door was sometimes bunched up and uneven, consumers told J.D. Power, so the production team found a new way to install the insulation.
To help identify future problems, German trainers are teaching production workers to use printed quality reports that show where a problem occurred, what caused it and how it was fixed.
One-third of the plant's employees will be qualified to present quality reports to management by the end of the year, said one of the trainers, Christoph Disch.
Taylor said design issues were responsible for some of the complaints reported by J.D. Power. These included a cupholder. 'Half the people don't like where they're located, and half of them do. We can't really do anything about that here at the factory. But we can make sure they work correctly.'