THE MAN WITH SUPERHUMAN EARS
How one man detects and fixes unwanted noise in Nissan’s vehicles.
Computers, robots, lasers, sensors - the technology that goes into building a 21st century automobile would make a comic writer from yesteryear scramble for his notebook.
But he would also probably agree that, better than all the fantastic gizmos you could dream up, a surefire recipe for success is to make your hero a humble scientist, and give him superhuman powers.
Meet Takanobu Sakumoto, from Nissan’s Vehicle Test Technology Development Division. He’s a specialist in the sensory assessment of wind noise - the roar of wind and air as it whooshes past your car when you drive along.
And the cutting -edge technology he uses for his job?
A moving car generates all kinds of sounds - engine noise, exhaust noise, road noise. And wind noise. And all those different sounds are muddled together into that familiar roar that reaches your ears as you drive along.
To most of us that’s just the noise that cars make, but for Sakumoto each part in the noise has its own particular character, and his ears can distinguish and pinpoint each individual sound, like unraveling a tangle of threads.
Working either in experimental facilities, where Nissan’s full-scale aerodynamic wind tunnel can generate winds of up to 270km/h, or out on real expressways, where he gets behind the wheel and literally chases the wind, Sakumoto’s job is to listen.
And he has fine-tuned his listening abilities to the point where, while most of us begin to find it difficult to hear high-frequency sounds as we get older, he can pick out just one tiny abnormal sound from the whole wall of noise that a moving vehicle makes. And having heard it, he will then locate the source, perhaps a gap just a few millimeters across in a trim component, and find a solution to fix it.
Sakumoto once showed his superhuman style in his own home, when a tiny sound suddenly started to bother him. It was driving him crazy, and he tracked it down to the motor noise of his brand-new refrigerator.
He called the manufacturer and a repair technician came right over, but couldn’t solve the problem. The sound was in a range that so few people notice that it wasn’t anything that could be repaired.
Sakumoto could have just put it down to “occupational illness”, and lived with it, but of course, he found his own solution and quietened the offending buzz.
There’s nothing quite like that feeling of excitement when you first take your new car out for a drive. At Nissan, we want to make that feeling last, and we believe the way to do that is try to take the quality of every little thing to the next level.
The noise your car makes is one of those things, and Takanobu Sakumoto is the man with superhuman ears who sorts it out. But such extravagant names just make him laugh.
According to Sakumoto, to do this job, you really just have to be a “car person.” He says what he needs for his job, and for Nissan’s development work, is not superhuman ears, but an insatiable and enduring love for cars.
In the end, that’s the kind of people who build Nissan’s automobiles. Humble scientists with a passion for their work.
And perhaps just a little pinch of superhuman powers, too.
EVEN BIRD DROPPINGS HAVE THINGS TO TEACH US
Nissan’s quest for the perfect paint job has taken them around the world to research the causes of damage to paintwork.
The time is the early 1990s. After a long sea journey, a shipload of Nissan cars have arrived in Europe, and are waiting at the port to be moved to their final destinations. Above them, silhouetted against the pale northern sky, flocks of gulls and sea birds swoop and call... and poop.
And that is when the trouble started. Later research revealed that the oil in fish-eating birds’ droppings causes it to stick firmly to paint, and eventually dissolve or soften it.
As the cars waited in the sun to be moved, the old droppings quickly dried and shrank, inflicting critical damage on what started out as a smooth coating.
The fleet of shiny new cars was ruined.
Of course, Nissan’s paint research began long before 1990, and covers all kinds of substances that can harm paint, including insect juices, tree sap, pollen and acid rain.
Even so, that incident naturally spurred Nissan’s researchers to step up their research efforts. They collected data from all around the world about the various causes of damage to paintwork, including gathering droppings from birds of all kinds, living all around the world, and painstakingly analyzing their constituents.
The development team found that different regions need different kinds of paint performance.
In North America, for example, there is an intense onslaught of chipping from small stones thrown up by the car in front, as well as damage from acid rain.
In Europe, paint must be strong against scratches. Not many people know this, but in some cases Nissan subtly tweaks the paint specification to suit the needs of the destination area.
Only Nissan goes to such lengths.
Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of the development team, Nissan’s paint has been reborn, far tougher than it used to be, and it is now backed up by “Scratch Shield”*, a almost magic-like paint technology that guards the surface against blemishes, and even restores minor scratches over time.
Nissan’s stance on paint development has moved on from the same old technology, constantly asking what will make a car’s coating attractive to the customer.
The development team are researching, night and day, to create paint jobs that will make customers want to blurt out “Wow!” when they see a Nissan car.
So never mind about a little bird poop. A car that keeps its luster, however lazy you are about looking after it: that’s the ultimate paint job that could be coming soon to Nissan cars.
* Scratch Shield is only available in certain countries and areas.
At Nissan's seven Field Quality Centers around the world, engineers work tirelessly to find faults, and fix them.
The walls of the room are covered with facts, figures, graphs and grainy photographs of the scene of the crime, and on tables around the walls lie burned-out air cleaners, upholstery that has turned to powder, and engine parts cut in half so their innermost workings can be inspected.
But this is not the operations room of the local police department, but rather the entrance hall to Nissan's Field Quality Center.
The shocking exhibit of 30 or more broken or faulty vehicle parts and components are on display for anyone to view. Not only suppliers, but any visitor is free to browse a collection that puts much that Nissan has to regret over the years on show for all the world to see.
The thinking behind such transparency comes from Nissan's firm conviction that they must never make the same mistake twice.
Of course, it is a huge problem that errors were made in the first place. But what is even more important is what happens next. How to deal with the problem swiftly, and put things right. And more, how to ensure that new models will not be subject to the same mistakes.
When a vehicle with a fault is sent to the center, the staff will gather together to inspect it. These are the FQC “detectives”. They go through every single possibility, one by one, however small and irrelevant it might seem, to find the cause of each problem.
The faulty part is placed in a real vehicle, recreating the actual situation where the fault occurred as closely as possible, and the center staff, suppliers, development and manufacturing teams work together to find the cause of the problem, and fix it.
This process of asking “Why?” over and over is called Field Tree Analysis (FTA). Nowadays FTA is done on computers, but it used to be done on paper, and the resulting “tree” could sometimes be as large as several square meters in area.
There are times when the problem seems unsurmountable. For example there was a model that was sent to South America that had trouble starting. It was manufactured in Asia, and exported to several countries, but only in one was there a problem. What was happening to cause problems only there...?
The cause, it turned out, was the rain. Noise from the wipers, which should have had no relation at all to the starting mechanism, was damaging the diodes in the starting system, and causing it to fail.
Like detective work, it takes combing through all the endless possibilities in painstaking detail, and working with every relevant department and supplier, to find the cause of such apparently illogical faults.
The Japanese word “kaizen” has become a world standard for the philosophy of continuous improvement, and the staff at the seven FQCs around the world know that there is no end to their Quality Kaizen.
But the ultimate goal is vehicles with no faults at all, and to that end the detectives are constantly tracking down the culprits, and catching them one by one. At FQC, this determination to achieve the utmost quality, they believe, is the key to maintaining the customers' trust.
YOU HAVE CONTROL, OVER
Nissan's Brake Override System, and their belief that people should always come first.
Safety is paramount. Nobody would argue with that. But a car isn’t just some piece of machinery that carries things about. It must also be fun to drive, and enjoyable to ride in.
This is a story about how that passion for making cars both safe and exciting, and a chance discovery over breakfast, led to a breakthrough in Nissan’s brake technology.
One morning, Yuichi Murakami, who is currently an Expert Leader in the Total Customer Satisfaction Function team, was sipping his tea as he read the newspaper, when his eye fell on a small article.
It told of the investigation into an aviation incident that had happened several years before, and as Murakami read the article, his heart started beating fast.
The investigation, he read, concluded that the trouble had occurred because the plane had been flying on auto-pilot. Although the pilot had attempted to pull the nose of the plane up out of trouble, the automated mechanism had overridden him.
In other words, thought Murakami, if only the system had given precedence to the pilot not the machine, is it possible that he might have been able to control the plane that day?
It was at that moment that Murakami was convinced that the electronic accelerator system he was currently involved in developing must, in the last instance, be a system that respected human will.
That conviction lead to Nissan developing their Brake Override System before any other Japanese car manufacturer. The system ensures that, should both the electronic accelerator pedal and brake pedal be pushed at the same time, engine power is reduced, and the brake is always given precedence.
But who would brake and accelerate at the same time? That doesn’t seem like a very common scenario. And it’s true that in normal driving it is very unlikely to occur. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible. What if something was to jam against the gas pedal, or for some reason the system was to malfunction and the accelerator stuck...?
To ensure that the car will stop safely whatever the situation, currently every Nissan vehicle with an electronic accelerator∗ is fitted with the Brake Override System.
But Nissan’s system doesn’t forget the needs of serious drivers, either. Should the brake and accelerator be applied at the same time, while providing for safety above all else, for a very short instant - enough for a truly experienced driver - the system gives the driver the option to decide.
That consideration of the customer’s needs is what Nissan is all about.
As computers take over our machines more and more, human’s are inclined to believe that they don’t need to do anything for themselves to remain safe... But that kind of thinking puts too much trust in the machine.
The manufacturer has a duty to make the customer understand to what extent the system will do the work, and what must be left down to human judgment. The key focus of Nissan’s research in the future is to ensure customers’ safety while delivering the very best.
But the belief that humans should have the final say will always be at the core of their work.
∗not including OEM
AVES, Nissan’s worldwide quality evaluation system, ensures that every vehicle meets the same exacting standards.
Soccer: the sport that makes the world cheer. On the pitch, 23 players. Eleven on each team, and the all important referee.
The rules of soccer are shared the world over, and the referee refers to the 17 articles in the competition rules, which lay out specifications for the pitch and the ball, scoring methods and more, all of which are explained in a 50-page manual. It’s only thanks to these shared rules that global-scale tournaments can be held without dissolving into confusion.
Just like soccer regulations, there are rules at Nissan for making cars. This global standard is called the Alliance Vehicle Evaluation Standard (AVES). There are currently 350 AVES check items, and 350 auditors keeping watch over Nissan automobile quality at production centers in 27 countries worldwide.
Before AVES was introduced, car manufacturing at Nissan was a world of artisans. There were no clear stipulated rules, and cars were simply made with the talent of the craftspeople, and sent out into the world.
But gradually production numbers grew, and the number of employees grew, too. To become a global company, Nissan had to be able to manufacture a high quality car in large quantities, and at production bases all over the world.
So AVES was implemented, to define a clear common language, and standardize Nissan quality in the eyes of the customer.
The foundations for AVES were laid out in 1981. In 1988, the items were separated into static and dynamic categories. And on the alliance with Renault in 1999, it reached the form it takes today.
The first checks come in the prototype stage, and are carried out a total of four times before the vehicle is ready to ship. Two certified auditors assess absolutely everything, from the viewpoint of the customer. During the driving evaluation they scrupulously split the work between the driver's seat and the back seat.
And if a car doesn't clear AVES, even if all the preparations have been put into place to begin selling it, the new model can't be shipped.
It is this powerful authority to show a red card that ensures the highest quality across all Nissan’s vehicles.
COBBLESTONES AND POTHOLES
At Nissan's testing ground in Tochigi, vehicles are put through their paces on road surfaces from all around the world.
A bumpy Italian cobblestone street, a Papua New Guinea dirt road, those notorious Brazilian potholes, and America's manhole covers, famous for the damage they do to a car's suspension... Would you believe it if you were told you could drive through all these conditions in one go? Well, at Nissan's Tochigi Testing Ground, they do just that, every day.
The vast, 2,922,000m2 grounds feature unique road conditions such as manhole covers and curb stones, over ten types of road surfaces - concrete roads, cobblestones, gravel roads, and a 6.5km high speed endurance test course.
Every new model that Nissan sends out into the world is put through its paces here.
To date, Nissan staff have traveled to approximately 65 countries to research road surfaces and test conditions. At each survey site, they meet with several hundred customers and spend a week interviewing them and observing behavior patterns. They also survey the types of driving surfaces, and distances driven.
Then they outfit a demonstration model with measuring instruments and drive the course themselves. The burden experienced by the car on the road surface is converted into data, and that country is given a number rating.
This experience is then recreated in Tochigi, and tests are run using new models optimized for those conditions.
Over the course of the development of a single model, it is no exaggeration to say that enough distance is logged in testing to drive around the world several hundred times.
A car is made up of tens of thousands of parts. To eliminate every bug, produce something of the highest quality and durability, and deliver a safe car to the customer wherever she lives, a new Nissan vehicle is driving the world's roads at the Tochigi Testing Ground again today.
THE WORLD OF 1/100 MILLIMETER
WE DON'T BUILD CARS