By Stewart Ballie, VP Product Management, Dyadem International Ltd., Toronto, Canada

In this age of instant gratification, manufacturers have taken to releasing products more quickly than ever. Has product quality — from cars and toys to medicines and electronics — slipped as a result? With recent recalls from companies such as Black & Decker, Fisher-Price, Toyota, and Toshiba it sometimes seems there are more recalls than days in the month.

Manufacturers clearly care about quality — they care about customer safety, their own reputation and, of course, their profit margins. But in the last three decades many variables have influenced business and help explain why quality has slipped across many industries.

• Consumers are demanding more variety and faster innovation, but insist on paying less.
• Manufacturers have moved off-shore to take advantage of cheaper labor and production.
• More reliance on outsourcing and the global supply chain raises the number of process variables and leaves quality controls vulnerable.
• Products are more complex — in turn necessitating more-complicated and error-prone manufacturing processes.

To better control quality, manufacturers need to take a comprehensive look at how products are made and used, so they can proactively identify potential risks and prevent defects as early in the product life cycle as possible. Without knowing the risks, management may find it difficult to prioritize where to invest in mitigation strategies and nearly impossible to plan and execute an enterprise-wide quality program.

But today’s production model makes that difficult. A lack of collaboration between manufacturing and design departments, between different manufacturing sites, and between suppliers and OEMs is still the norm. A typical quality risk-management system relies on checklists and compliance, but often fails to address the entire production cycle. And without a good system for sharing information, global quality is out of reach.

Further, design-for-quality efforts are often ineffective due to an inability to capture quality data and leverage it in design-engineering activities. Planning efforts should lead to designs that ensure quality throughout a product’s life. Testing should be linked to designs, and failure-mode and effects analyses (FMEAs) used to validate the engineering. And the entire process should permit full traceability from product requirements to inspection benchmarks to repair and warranty history.

It sounds overwhelming, but software tools can streamline the process. They help create FMEAs that include corporate standards and past experience; tie critical product and production qualities to inspection guidelines; provide visibility through dashboards and leading and lagging quality indicators; and manage the entire quality process, including Design for Six Sigma efforts. Developing a robust knowledge base ensures engineers make good design decisions based on all available information.

The tools also help manufacturers collaborate with vendors and within departments and sites in their own organization. Design or process changes can be analyzed via the FMEA and other quality-planning documents. With this closed-loop continuous-improvement process, best practices and lessons learned are captured and sustained throughout the product’s life.

By linking design efforts with quality data and past experience and fostering communication, organizations can improve time to market and long-term reliability, reduce costs and avoid expensive recalls, and still satisfy consumer demands for innovative and high-quality products. MD

Dyadem, part of IHS Inc., provides quality risk-management software and services for design engineering and manufacturing processes.

Edited by Kenneth J. Korane

© 2011 Penton Media, Inc.