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Could Rapidly Evolving Kobe Steel Scandal Affect Motorcycle Manufacturers?

Kobe Steel is more than a century old and, until recently at least, a respected, Japan-based supplier of raw materials to manufacturers in the transportation industries, including automobiles, trains and airplanes. In just the last few days, a disclosure by Kobe Steel that it has falsified certain information about the strength and durability of recently delivered aluminum and copper supplied to its customers, has now expanded to include other products, including products relating to steel used by its customers. You can find industry reports, including one originating with Bloomberg News, here and here.

Although the reports currently seem to focus on automobile manufacturers, as opposed to motorcycle manufacturers, aluminum and steel are key components in the manufacture of many motorcycles.  Furthermore, among important customers of Kobe Steel identified at this point are Honda and Suzuki. We would be surprised if other companies involved in the manufacture of motorcycles are not later identified as customers of Kobe Steel.

Although initial reports indicated that the materials subject to falsified data had only been delivered to customers relatively recently, it is now suspected that Kobe Steel may have falsified data concerning raw materials as far back as a decade ago.  Several customers stated they are actively examining the use of Kobe Steel materials in their products to determine whether the safety of said products is compromised.

Although Kobe Steel has only been conducting an internal review up to this point, it says it has engaged an outside law firm to independently examine the improper conduct, and that it is possible that the external investigation will uncover additional wrongdoing. Given the path followed by recent scandals involving Volkswagen (concerning emissions cheating) and Takata airbags, expect a wave of legal action against Kobe Steel, including class action claims that could also name automobile manufacturers, for instance, as co-defendants.

MD will keep an eye on this story as it evolves and report back. It should be noted that we are currently unaware of any direct impact on the safety of any motorcycles.


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50 Comments

  1. Bradley D Banker says:

    Honda CRF1000L and D bikes are having issues with front forks…. related?

  2. Sam says:

    Toyota Tundra pickups have rusted, rotting frames, after a few years. Google ‘Rust problems on Toyota pickups.’

    Wait until high levels of Radiation shows up in Steel and aluminium.

    I wonder if the 2002 Goldwing frame cracks were caused by the weak material?

  3. Denny says:

    Strength and endurance in technical metal applications are affected by impurities which in turn are introduced by shortcuts in process. Shortcuts are good for short term profits. This is line which should be clearly understood. Is Kobe Steel limping behind competition and trying to make it up by cheeting, or is it overworked because of lack of competition? I do not know. I only know that specs are stringent and to maintain them to standard level is costly.

    But what I wonder about is if Japanese industry is obliged to the same system as U.S., Canada and EU, that is ISO certification. Once you are certified your customer does not have to do any billet sample tests which would slow him down and increase cost of his own production. Industrial standards should be universally respected; the only way to the future.

  4. JSH says:

    Only a fool trusts their suppliers. As Bob said: “Trust but verify”. Any halfway decent company does routine receiving inspections on all of their suppliers.

  5. Magnus says:

    I have worked in the steel construction industry for 30 years. We deal with structural shapes in both steel and aluminum. I have seen delaminated steel, sizes that aren’t even close to meeting specification parameters, but mostly very good material. Structural engineers rely on huge safety factors to cover themselves legally. Our insatiable desire to produce ever lighter, faster, more responsive bikes limit the engineer’s safety margin. Something has to give. We all have to pay somewhere, either up front, for substandard products, at someone else’s expense (poorly paid labour), corruption (Kobe Steel), or our planet.
    Now we all get to pay the lawyers.

  6. Bart says:

    From a bike frame point of view, it would be about what level of contaminants are in the steel, as this effects weld quality/fatigue life.

    I have seen bad HR plate explode during cutting/welding/forming, HR plate that was rolled cold.

    But there are many many other variables involved, such as threads cut undersize.

  7. Bob Loblaw says:

    The misunderstanding is that Kobe Steel should be marketed as a premium steel, just like Kobe Beef…

    I’m in aerospace. We run test coupons on everything that’s formed and heat treated. We track each batch of incoming materials. We send out raw stock for ASTM analysis / verification. To quote Ronny Raygun: “Trust but verify.”

    • Norm G. says:

      re: “I’m in aerospace. We run test coupons on everything that’s formed and heat treated. We track each batch of incoming materials. We send out raw stock for ASTM analysis / verification.”

      and there it is… (again)

  8. joe b says:

    Having worked previously in Quality Assurance Department, the “certs”, Certification literature provided with manufactured parts, is the beginning of the documentation of manufacture. If these were falsified, those manufactured parts cannot be deemed good to use. That’s a huge burden then put on the manufacturers to decide what to do next? I cant imagine the magnitude of something like this. Probably doesn’t matter if the sheet steel in a car door is less than stated, but its important in areas of responsibility.

  9. Gham says:

    I would be more concerned with heavy steel used for bridge and building construction.Inferior automobile steel usually tells on itself in the stamping or heat treating process.
    Tube steel for plumbing/steam applications would be another concern.

  10. dale says:

    My 2009 Suzuki Bandit has been so far so good to absorb pot holes, rough roads, etc. It rode to Baja Mexico with BMW riders and suffered no damage while a GSA got bent on the front wheel going over to a pot hole about 60 mph. Luckily nearby shade tree mechanics who mostly deals with big truck helped hammering the wheel together to get it going on limb toward the US border in a day… On the trip to Lake Tahoe recently a friend who rode a brand new R1200RT got bent on front wheel while going over a pot hole. Again my bandit with steel wheels has no issue so far even though pot holes around Lake Tahoe are popular and sometimes can’t avoid them. I think the materials do matter especially over the time to test its endurance.

    • Norm G. says:

      re: “a GSA got bent on the front wheel going over to a pot hole about 60 mph.”

      re: “a brand new R1200RT got bent on front wheel while going over a pot hole.”

      this is/was not a material issue persay as much as it was a “design issue” (see entry for TELELEVER). same occurs (albeit with less frequency) on DUOLEVER kit as well.

      if the bump is super-gnarly not even forged Marchesinis are going to help you due to the way suspension and braking forces are separated. it’s one of the unspoken trade offs of employing an A-arm “Motorrad engineers” are NOT going to share with you. i however WILL share it with you.

  11. guu says:

    Kawasaki Heavy Industries has already been mentioned as a victim of this scandal, specifically the train manufacturing.

  12. Gus says:

    I work in the airplane industry. This is huge. Remember, there is a difference between stress and fatigue. On airframes designed for a 30 year lifespan, a part 10 years in is still relatively early in the fatigue cycle.

    It is true the tier 1 supplier content is rigorously tested. It’s the tier 2 and 3 that I worry about.

    Thanks Dirck for covering this. – Gus

  13. Grover says:

    I worked in aerospace for 30 years and all metallic raw material was tested for hardness. For example, sheet aluminum stored on a shelf gets harder with age and becomes more brittle If it exceeds specs. If hydro formed parts were cracking in the bend radius they were rejected and the metal was again tested for hardness and usually found to exceed spec. Some inspector failed to initially do his job. Not sure about the motorcycle industry, but in aerospace everything from the vendor is tested in receiving inspection.

  14. Gary says:

    Thanks for doing this investigative work. Nice job. Unexpected but welcome.

  15. RichBinAZ says:

    Well Yamaha do their own castings
    https://global.yamaha-motor.com/business/cf/example/casting/ and likely control their raw material quite well.
    Neat video on this page https://global.yamaha-motor.com/business/cf/
    But I wonder if the problematic clutch basket on the FZ-09 is made by a sub supplier that uses Kobe aluminum. They seem to be suffering from brittle failures
    http://www.fz09.org/forum/34-yamaha-fz-09-common-problems-issues/10918-broken-clutch-basket-plates-5.html#post220737

    • Denny says:

      Those are nice references – they reveal how things are done at Yamaha. When they say “we make our own castings” is nice to read and they are/ should be in charge of process and one would assume they test it thoroughly. Similar situation as with Ruger Arms in U.S. for example. But there is one step before – material itself; here they must rely on smelters. So no one works entirely independently; there is always someone before and someone after in the chain.

  16. Dave says:

    I’d be surprised if this effects the end user in a meaningful way. The producers of vehicles test everything. If the engineers designed to the published properties of the material, and the material were different, it would show up in strength and fatigue testing, wouldn’t it?

    • xLaYN says:

      +1
      the other thing is, how is producers didn’t notice before? for example crash testing should have raise up the difference in material properties.

    • ApriliaRST says:

      > The producers of vehicles test everything. If the engineers designed to the published properties of the material, and the material were different, it would show up in strength and fatigue testing, wouldn’t it?

      So, by your evaluation, there is no problem.

      • Dave says:

        Not an evaluation, just a speculation based on my own experience in metal parts production.

        “it is now suspected that Kobe Steel may have falsified data concerning raw materials as far back as a decade ago. ”

        If the above is true, we should be seeing issues by now.

    • Jeremy in TX says:

      We rarely work with aluminum in my industry, but I can say we never design right up to the published limits of the alloy being used. Significant safety margin is built into the designs.

      Auto manufacturers do considerable testing of raw materials, finished components and complete assemblies, including crash testing and prolonged extreme condition testing. Red flags would have popped up by now I think if the falsified data were materially significant.

      Aluminum is a different story and may play out to be an issue over time since fatigue events have a cumulative effect on aluminum alloys. Particularly of concern if they sold to aerospace.

      • Norm G. says:

        re: “Auto manufacturers do considerable testing of raw materials”

        re: “Aluminum is a different story and may play out to be an issue over time since fatigue events have a cumulative effect on aluminum alloys”

        see, Texas Jay gets it.

        re: “Particularly of concern if they sold to aerospace”

        and if someone Japanese is dumb enough to do THAT…? they may as well not wait for any lawsuit (like so much corrupt Westerner) but go fall on their swords immediately, for it would quickly be discovered by QC at Boeing, Airbus, Dassault, Bombardier, etc.

        this a whole ‘nother level of DISASTER (over and above ground transportation) cause nobody wants to have the FAA/EASA grounding their fleet operators or crawling up their ass with a microscope, cause they’re good for it.

      • Denny says:

        I have seen some crashed aluminum front wheel rims at repair shop. Man, you would not believe what they take before break occurs which is expected mode of failure to castings. They actually warp/ deflect by significant amount before break takes place. Until air is out of tire you can handle situation and stop safely.

    • TimC says:

      They don’t test every part that goes on a production vehicle. That testing happens in actual use.

      • Bob K says:

        True, we could never afford anything they built if they did.

        Auto/aircraft manufacturers have their own people that spend their days at the mills, all year long, keeping the mill honest… 3rd party inspectors in other words. They are also signing off the documentation on the runs, chemical analysis and thermal processing before the material certs are printed off. They do the same thing for anything going to casting and forging, making sure the correct ingot goes into the furnace and into the molds and dies. You couldn’t have that level of traceability if you didn’t have people living there and being on site every day. But it’s necessary to get that part of it right before sending anything to the next operation.

        Not all business types can afford to do that, oil and gas included. We don’t test anything until something bursts at the bottom of the Gulf.

    • Denny says:

      I am sure they do and not just for safety. Besides, every part exposed to mechanical stress has redundancy built into it. They call it “fail safe” mode of operation. First you see yield and its effect on function, before they fail.

  17. Endurorider says:

    Wonder if this is related to the collapse of the shock rings on Cole Seely’s CR450 at the MXON ?

    • guu says:

      They don’t make British mud and they don’t ram it in to a split-design shock collar (unlike Showa and WP) that is very deep in its design (unlike every other bike) . The earth, the climate, Kayaba and Honda are responsible for those.

  18. Norm G. says:

    steel is an exceedingly RESILIENT material. even a “bad batch” of Kobe by modern Chemical standards is a “good batch” that exceeds the demands of most applications (those going hammer/tongs on Nuclear Submarines need not apply). though falsifying data is always destined to come back and bite you in the ass when it comes to public safety – remember my paradigm of “no free lunch” (VW knows what i’m taking about) i contend you’d have to really go out of your way to screw it up, like to the point of “sabotage”.

    there will likely be no one physically hurt by this so called “scandal” the hurt here will be mostly financial (ouch). for if the problem were that great #1, we would’ve seen it by now and #2, it would’ve been caught at any number of secondary and tertiary QC, XRF, and Destructive Testing stages employed by the manufacturers. as Rap eludes, if there’s a problem with Ally, then it’s something recently compromised. it wouldn’t make it very far before problems show up. by it’s nature, problems show up in even the best Al products.

    • Gary says:

      I respectfully disagree.

      Motorcycle components are manufactured to spec assuming a certain alloy quality. It does not need to be as strong as steel used in submarines or aircraft, obviously, but then the thickness and alloy of the metal is not the same, and it costs less.

      The fact is, motorcycle components DO fail due to metal stress. Ask Honda about aluminum Gold Wing frames and BMW about rear wheel bearings.

      By falsifying documents, Kobe opens itself up to legal action related to recalls regarding component failure. They will suffer … and rightfully so. There is no excuse for operating a business dishonestly.

      Frivolous lawsuits suck. But not as bad as dishonest corporations.

      • xLaYN says:

        +1
        If they blindly rely on the data provided by the manufacturer/provider and it’s not correct you could end with parts breaking when they shouldn’t, if they don’t they will have to increase costs as “for some reason” part doesn’t behave as expected.
        Any CAD/Simulation application will throw erroneous data.

      • Norm G. says:

        re: “The fact is, motorcycle components DO fail due to metal stress. Ask Honda about aluminum Gold Wing frames” and BMW about rear wheel bearings.”

        again, when dealing with any alloys of Aluminum all bets are off. and when dealing with anybody in the niche business of motorcycling, more bets are off.

        the big businesses dealing in aerospace, automotive, etc conduct their own testing. afterall “big business” brings with it BIG RISK. their exposure to liability is understood, the staff lawyers of course see to this.

        while we motorcyclists LOVE to think of ourselves as important, special and “big business” but no, that’s something we like to tell ourselves. margins are thin so that’s also reflected in R&D. loads are less so you’re not going to see that level of durability testing no matter how good or bad the material source is supposed to be. as you see with Motorrad they’ll just “socialize the losses” during warranty.

  19. Neil says:

    China had weak metals for quite some time. They’ve since westernized their manufacturing. Now they are major owners or controllers of many key metals in the world. – “Other materials are often added to the iron/carbon mixture to produce steel with desired properties. Nickel and manganese in steel add to its tensile strength and make the austenite form of the iron-carbon solution more stable, chromium increases hardness and melting temperature, and vanadium also increases hardness while making it less prone to metal fatigue.” – It’s interesting reading in general, the world of metals and precious metals and soon to be rare metals in the world. For example: http://www.manilatimes.net/global-ferronickel-buys-90-of-ipilan-mine-for-50m/207912/

  20. allworld says:

    As with so many manufactured products today, motorcycles are assembled from many components that are outsourced by the manufacture. So identifying the companies that used KOBE as a raw material source is very cruel into determining which motorcycles may have components which are not compliant with their design specifications. This could be from springs and fasteners, valve stems to brakes, suspension..and so on.

  21. Tommy See says:

    Rear Axle on my 2015 650 v strom had weak threads and had to be replaced last chain adjust and tire replacement. Now has me wondering?

    • Farnsky says:

      I had the same issue on my 2014 650 V-Strom around the 20K mile mark. Service guy said he had only seen that about three times in his twenty years of working on bikes. I love my V-Strom, very comfortable and fun to drive, great handling as well. No other problems so far (30K miles now), but this has me wondering as well.

  22. Rapier says:

    I still have seen nothing on the nature of flaws which will certainly be a long story as aluminum and steel are vastly different things. Then too various types of steel will all have their tales to tell. Previous to this there have been no stories that I know of about the failure of metals in transportation equipment and remember the substandard materials may have been in the market for 10 years.

    It may be unfair but my confidence in the quality of Chinese metals meeting standards, say 99% of the time, hovers around zero. How widespread those are in vehicle manufacture is unknown to me.

    • Bob K says:

      Asian steel and aluminum has been a major pain in my rectum the last 10 years. I’m a 30 year engineer and have spent the past 10 years busting Asian steel suppliers for materials that do not meet specification. I design hanging drilling equipment for the oil and gas industry that must hold up to 1000 tons of drill string, so safety is paramount and failure is no option to anyone. So when a part fails, I go into failure analysis mode, examining the material defect area under microscopes looking for signs of where the failure originated. We get the materials tested for all alloying materials and percentages. We test samples for destruction. We do all kinds of stuff. And we’ve busted plenty of mills for lying about what they’ve sent us.

      What we’ve learned over the years is that the Asian suppliers can mass produce the crap out of material certifications just as well as they can mass produce the toys in a McDonalds happy meal. It isn’t the fault of the suppliers we use domestically. They don’t do chemical analysis on what comes in and customs agents don’t test it off the boat either. All they have is the cert to go by. All we can do is put these mills on the no buy list. Any company working with critical componentry will have a policy for where raw materials are allowed to be sourced from. Much of what I deal with is 100-140 ksi yield and a safety factor of 2.5 to meet the requirements of the country our customers are based in. So, the material we use better match that piece of paper.

      I get the impression that the Asians keep the “good” stuff for themselves and send everyone else their “bad mill runs.”

  23. wjf says:

    hopefully, they didn’t “falsify” too much into the factor of safety built into all design as a function of ultimate strength of the steel….good gravy the complications that may arise out of this are unimaginable

    • Bob K says:

      Ultimate strength is such a small part of the equation. Yield, the point where a material gives and cannot return to it’s prior dimensional state is going to be reached far sooner and more regularly.

      With motor vehicles, let’s say with aluminum, all it take is a flimsy engine block to twist and distort a millimeter to cause a camshaft to bind, then grind, then overheat which changes the performance of the camshaft steel. Perhaps that flimsy block also simply twists and vibrates enough to disrupt gasket surfaces and leaks start. Perhaps it simply stretches, changing all the tolerances between moving parts.

      Aluminum or steel, maybe we’re talking about body panels and unibody skeletons. Same potential problems and then some more regarding safety. Spaceframes are designed to protect and not YIELD. The rest of the vehicle is designed to YIELD to absorb impacts and move in directions away from the spaceframe.

      On a bike, that single sided swingarm needs to be stiff and not YIELD, lest the wheel misalign and cause handling issues.

      I actually had a part break catastrophically within 2 months on a brand new bike, a Guzzi Stelvio NTX adventure bike. I was in Labrador when the front fork axle pinch clamp casting ripped from around the lower fork tube. This was part design flaw, part machining flaw and possibly improper material selection or improperly processed material. Analysis concluded the fit was machined too tight and the hoop stress too high. Also the part was too thin for it’s duty cycle. The hardness wasn’t as high as what it should have been if the aluminum was a 356 aluminum treated to a T6 condition. I was on a rough unmaintained road, fully loaded, but I used to repeatedly fly off of drop offs in the desert on my R1100GS 20 years prior with out a single broken piece. The part actually stretched, then ripped. Then it came off the fork tube, cocked the front axle, which caused the front wheel to cock and lock up between the forks, launching me over the handlebars. If the hardness was there, the stretching would have been minimized, possibly long enough to get me home safely.

  24. paquo says:

    laws, those are for little people

  25. Matt G says:

    I hate to be cynical, but I doubt that any producer of this type is innocent of the same practice. That has just gotten to be the way of business. Do whatever it takes for the almighty Dollar, or Yen in this case.

  26. MGNorge says:

    Most likely to cut costs and improve the bottom line. I hope it’s not found to be too far ranging.

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