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Product Recalls – The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Product Recalls are reported almost as an everyday occurrence in the news media.  Recalls have at least three sides, the good, the bad and the ugly!

The Good side of recalls is, they usually occur after engineers and management are alerted by an unusual number of noteworthy accidents or product failures.  Failure statistics and tracking of failures and accidents is difficult at best.  Obviously, in automobile accidents, if people are injured or killed and concurrently a product failure is found, red flags should go up.  The company engineers should investigate and report their findings and recommendations to management.  Management then must evaluate if the circumstances necessitate immediate action and if an automobile recall is warranted.

If the recall is warranted, then for sure human lives will be saved and injuries spared.  However, what if there are no fatalities and the damages to people and property are relatively minor? It may take the company engineers and management much longer to become aware of the failures, to gather statistics, conduct tests and inform management of the results.  Failures that require a recall are usually systemic, cascading and grow expediential with time.

The Bad of recalls is obvious.  First of all, the possibility of a long-time lapse between the accident or failure and the realization that something is amiss.  In a recall situation that I have been involved in, welding parameters that were set by computer to assembly line automatic welders were off the mark and out of parameter limits some of the time.  

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As a result, the welds on the particular device were made, but not made perfectly.  The welds passed the quality control inspections and the product was sold into the stream of commerce. After 2-5 years of use, some of the welds, which were marginal, began to initiate weld fatigue cracks.  These fatigue cracks grew resulting in a product failure and sometimes, a fire.  Back at the welding line, welding parameter adjustments were made and the welds now were being performed perfectly and with no occasional deviations.  The problem was those found in units fabricated within the previous two-year window. 

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The bad of this recall was trying to determine if, when and where the allegedly defective welds were made.  Some welds which contained the welding flaw survived the entire product lifetime and never failed.  Under these circumstances, management had to spend unnecessary funds to recall products that only occasionally failed.  However, hopefully to avoid product failures, besmirching of the company’s reputation and unnecessary litigation costs, the monies were spent and the recall was announced.  Many owners brought the product to a repair station and had the product exchanged or modified with no future issues.

The Ugly does happen in product recalls.  The continuing problem that General Motors is experiencing is one of those ugly situations.  The more their problem is researched, the more problems they find.  Ugly can also be expensive.  Admitting a limited problem and initiating a recall can create ongoing problems for the company.

About 6-8 years ago, a manufacturer of portable refrigerators issued a recall for their small, ammonia refrigerator. These refrigerators have become a target for fire investigators who need a cause for house and RV fires.  If one of these refrigerators is in the vicinity, even if classic fire origin evidence points in another direction, this manufacturer’s product becomes the target of cause because there was at one time a recall.  I have worked on 12-14 of these ammonia refrigerator fire cases for the manufacturer and have never had an instance where the conditions stated in the recall notice actually existed.  In fact, I do not believe based on the scientific evidence that I have observed, that a recall was even necessary.  That is, the very fact that an earlier generation of this product was recalled condemns newer, non-recalled, non-defective products to be GUILTY until proven innocent.

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J.E.I. Metallurgical, Inc.

5514 Harbor Town
Dallas, Texas 75287

Phone: (972) 934-0493
Fax: (469) 737-3938
Email: r.c.jerner@metallurgist.com

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