ROCKY ROAD: Technician Edward Bonilla holds a recalled Takata air bag inflator after he removed it from a Honda Pilo. Picture: REUTERS
ROCKY ROAD: Technician Edward Bonilla holds a recalled Takata air bag inflator after he removed it from a Honda Pilo. Picture: REUTERS

TOKYO — Replacing potentially lethal Takata Corp air bags in a mass recall is more challenging and time-consuming than expected, as rival parts suppliers struggle to make bag inflators that replicate the originals fitted by the Japanese firm.

The recalls so far cover tens of millions of cars made by more than a dozen vehicle makers — and spanning about 170 model variants in the US alone.

It is rare in a product recall to have alternative suppliers make the replacement parts. But the unprecedented scale of the Takata recalls, where defective air bags have been linked to 10 deaths, has prompted several vehicle makers to source replacement inflators from Takata’s rivals.

The recalls highlight the interdependence between Takata, its rivals and vehicle makers facing delays for replacement parts.

"Automakers are very reliant on Takata to produce replacement inflators and to co-operate with ... (rival) companies making Takata-designed inflators," said Scott Upham, CEO of Valient Market Research.

For now, Takata, which the Wall Street Journal reported has hired restructuring lawyers, remains integral to the process. "In the near term, Takata will be kept afloat until all the replacement parts are produced," Mr Upham said.

For the ongoing recall, alternative suppliers including Autoliv, ZF-TRW and Daicel Corp have to fashion replacement inflators from similar sized designs in their own product portfolios, and adapt them to Takata’s original design to fit the air bag module — the casing containing the air bag.

Inflators, made of stainless steel or aluminium, are not a one-size-fits-all product. They come in basic disk or tubular shapes: "hamburgers" for driver and front passenger seats, and "hot dogs" for rear seats, according to an engineer at a major air bag supplier.

Hamburger inflators resemble burger cartons with pinched edges that can measure up to about 10cm on each side. The size, dimensions and the amount of propellant needed to activate the inflator can vary according to vehicle model.

"We need to look at the space between the instrument panel and the steering wheel, and make sure we can fit it," said the engineer, who did not want to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

"That’s complicated because we’re trying to fit into an existing space that Takata designed with its (vehicle maker) customer, and we may have to change our design to do this."

Takata said it had "dramatically increased" the output of replacement inflators and was "working closely" with other inflator makers to supply replacement kits.

But it remains under pressure from vehicle makers and regulators to speed up a recall that is now in its eighth year.

The range of recalled models means more inflator designs have to be modified, tested to calibrate their propellant force, and manufactured to fit each different model. In some cases these models date back as far as 2000, and parts makers have to re-tool to replicate obsolete designs.

"We’re having to produce a similar inflator which performs the same way in the module as the original did," said an executive at a major parts supplier, who declined to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.

"We’re having to take a (design and testing) process which usually takes 2-3 years and speed it up to a matter of months." Thomas Jonsson, spokesman for Autoliv, the world’s leading air bag supplier, said. "We’re seeing our deliveries of up to 20-million inflators being dragged out longer than expected. Since we don’t have products off the shelf that are identical to the original inflators, there’s a design phase and a validation phase for each different product."

A spokesman for Honda said its announcement last month that repairs on 2.2-million recalled air bags would begin this summer was indicative of the slow pace of procuring replacement parts.

Since last year, parts suppliers have boosted replacement inflator capacity, and by mid this year should produce about 5-million replacements each month, according to Valient.

Honda said it was sourcing most replacement inflators from suppliers other than Takata, and Nissan said it was also securing some replacements from rival suppliers.

Toyota, which recalled 11.8-million air bags last year alone, says it switched to Daicel for around a quarter of the replacement inflators it needs, with Autoliv providing some others and Takata the remainder.