PLM: Safeguarding Consumers, Safeguarding Yourself

PLM provides traceability -- a reconciled, version-controlled central repository of global standards, designs, communications and change history, partners, bills-of-material, sourcing information and supplier declarations.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission launched a new Web platform called SaferProducts.gov on March 11th (mandated by Congress as part of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) of 2008), which allows agencies, non-profits, businesses and consumers to submit reports of allegedly unsafe products. Each report will be reviewed by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission for five days, and then manufacturers will be given 10 additional days to add a comment or request a modification to the report before it is published online.

By making it easier for consumers to report problems, this initiative has the potential to open a floodgate of inquiries that manufacturers will have to answer in a very short time period, an especially onerous task for larger manufacturing, brand and retail organizations that offer hundreds or thousands of products annually. If organizations don't address the complaints, the ramifications could be huge. Product lifecycle management (PLM) will play a key role in helping companies respond in a timely and accurate manner as they navigate this new consumer product safety reporting platform.

Though it might be easy to accuse the government of feeding into the public hysteria over recent automotive and toy recalls, the fact of the matter is that this legislation is a reality. The product categories for which SaferProducts.gov invites evidence-backed complaints are critically important categories with respect to public safety -- cribs, toys, and many other common consumer products. The first thing to which organizations should resign themselves is that unlike other so-called public safety measures, SaferProducts.gov has a specific purpose. It also has restrictions: consumers cannot anonymously slander a product or company; making an allegation involves verifiable proof of consumers' identities as well as material evidence that backs up their claim.

Secondly, product manufacturers, brands and retailers must treat the website and its complaints as they would International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Sarbanes-Oxley or BASEL II (recommendations on banking laws and regulations issued by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision) -- as a form of regulatory compliance. The importance of having a single, accurate view of your company's entire product lifecycle -- from its initial design to a list of materials and suppliers from around the world -- is critical to almost all compliance efforts, and addressing allegations from SaferProducts.gov is no different. This is why maintaining control over the data and decisions behind product design, supplier sourcing and manufacturing processes is essential, and the means to achieve that is through PLM.

PLM provides traceability -- a reconciled, version-controlled central repository of global standards, designs, communications and change history, partners, bills-of-material, sourcing information and supplier declarations. Depending on the accusation at hand, product managers can identify each component that went into creating a particular product: why it was chosen, from whom it was sourced and where it was manufactured globally. Visibility into the development process can allow companies to identify any issues or changes that may have compromised a product's safety, and more importantly, enable them to immediately rectify said issues.

Unfortunately, SaferProducts.gov presents a dichotomous situation for organizations. They need PLM systems in place to be able to recover quickly from accusations of poor product safety. However, those companies who use enterprise-wide PLM solutions are much less likely to release unsafe products, and therefore will less likely be accused of poor product safety. While various parties will debate whether or not this is a good thing, the bottom line is that if companies don't use PLM in developing a product, there's very little that can be done if that product's credibility is called into question.

Another misstep many companies are prone to make is dismissing the validity or potential damage caused by consumer accusations. Global behemoths employing thousands of people in dozens of countries may not feel especially vulnerable to the stones thrown by a single entity, but what seems like an open-and-shut case may eventually spiral out of control (just look at California's Proposition 65). With the federal government required to investigate safety complaints for which there is tangible evidence, however, the story becomes considerably less financially-malleable and a lot more "like David versus Goliath." Companies can often silence individuals with an apology and some compensation, but the U.S. government is a different matter. No business of reasonable mind would ignore a sexual harassment lawsuit posed by a small group of people or even an individual; so why would it want to ignore a safety complaint?

Maintaining an attitude of innocence in the face of consumer complaints is an interesting but woefully ill-advised strategy. While PLM can help a company defend itself against a freak anomaly or misplaced fear, incorrect data, miscommunication between offices and missing information can take even the strongest company down within weeks (i.e. Enron). If manufacturers, brands and retailers don't believe that PLM can improve process efficiency and product quality -- which of course are its primary purposes -- they should still adopt it to protect themselves against potential financial and information audits. In this day and age of corporate impropriety and crumbling Ponzi schemes, the excuse of "I can't find that information anywhere" is no defense.

With SaferProducts.gov as yet another extension of consumer reach and empowerment in the age of YouTube and online review sites, PLM isn't just a best practice for product design, development and global sourcing -- it's a safeguard against consumer injury and financial collapse.

Related Links:

Consider This: New CPSC Complaint Database Is Trap for the Unwary

Storm Warning -- Businesses Should Prepare Now for the Impact of the New CPSC Consumer Product Database

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