Taking a Quality Lifecycle Approach to Avoid Product Pains

Oct. 2, 2008
Business consumers are willing to pay more for a manufacturer's investments in the right test and quality control tools and services.

It's been happening more often: A product is pushed to market, receives rave customer reviews, brand is glowing and the revenue dollars are pouring in. Until a complete 180 is pulled -- when a small (and seemingly fixable) glitch results in potential harm to the customer.

Overnight, it triggers a domino effect. The manufacturer has to make this product deficiency public to ensure consumer safety. The headlines catch wind, thousands of customers get notice and a long-term dent in image and buying backlash result. Increased service and support costs also strain product development budgets -- leaving shrinking opportunities to make product improvements and capture any real revenue on that product line.

Recent examples in the past few months illustrate this:

  • In September, Apple recalled certain versions of its iPhone 3G Ultracompact USB power adapter which was found prone to break
  • In August, Apple's Japanese unit launched a voluntary recall of its first-generation iPod Nano players after reports of battery fires
  • This past June, more than 367,000 Hewlett-Packard fax machines were recalled and deemed fire hazards -- the result of three devices overheating and causing minor property damage

The harsh reality is that any electronics manufacturer is vulnerable to this scenario. When it comes to quality control, no company is too big or too small to be hit hard by flaws and glitches that result from manufacturing errors, inadequate testing, or the rush to get new products into the hands of an eager market.

Thinking bigger -- and bold -- can help manufacturers grasp a hold of the issue, and control quality more intelligently. More manufacturers are putting control into their own hands, taking a broader examination of manufacturing processes -- or in simple terms, quality lifecycle management (QLM) strategies -- to determine the biggest risk spots, whether within the design or assembly phases, where seemingly "innocent" flaws can turn into a major nightmare over quality issues.

Understanding the Origins of Issues

In many cases, these types of glitches may not directly come from a primary manufacturer, but originate from a third-party supplier or OEM who has signed on to provide a single component that eventually fails. In this case, the OEM probably neglected to put the part through the necessary quality checks and balances, or meet the minimum performance standards set by the manufacturer.

Worse, the manufacturer failed to properly apply its own quality management rules to the OEM component, and added this 'weak link' to the product design.

Affecting the Best and Brightest

The hard reality of product recalls hit Apple Computer, a company known for innovative product design, manufacturing excellence and a dedicated base of users worldwide. The company came under fire two years ago when complaints started surfacing about its popular MacBook Pro line of notebook computers. Criticism flooded user bulletin and chat board sites about failed batteries, motherboard problems and even discolorations in the notebooks sleek white casing.

Apple initially denied knowledge of any widespread problems, especially concerning apparent effects with the MacBook Pro's casing. But in a world where public perception -- and word of mouth -- is too powerful, the company took the groundswell of grassroots complaints seriously and started issuing repairs and replacements, but not after suffering a hit in terms of user satisfaction and reports in the press.

Apple has since learned from its earlier mistakes and its knee-jerk reaction to dismiss problems too quickly, and now keeps close tables on user comments that zip across the Internet and through social networks -- as seen with the two incidents above. The company has also invested a lot in its telephone, online and in-store service and support structure to quickly resolve issues and complaints.

For Whom the Dell Tolls

Not surprisingly, Apple isn't the only top-tier company brought to task by user complaints on the Internet of shoddy manufacturing and product glitches. At about the same time the iconic Apple was struggling to resolve defect issues with its MacBook Pro, Dell Computer was knee deep in one of the largest recalls of notebook batteries in history.

The Texas company recalled 4.1 million lithium-ion notebook computer batteries in August 2006 when metal shards were discovered embedded deep inside the batteries that could result in short circuits or overheating. The metals bits somehow broke off during the manufacturing process at the Sony plant in Japan, and were never caught by the testing and quality control procedures.

Dell worked with the Consumer Products Safety Commission on the recall -- reportedly the largest ever coordinated by a government agency -- and invited users to check their batteries and request replacements via the Internet. On the first day of the recall, the company had fielded more than 100,000 telephone calls, 23 million Web site hits and 77,000 battery replacement orders, according to reports.

The Pitfall of Putting Quality in the Back Seat

Competitive pressures and the race to get products into the market as quickly and economically as possible may be the chief reason why quality control and careful testing at the point of manufacturing often suffer. The demand for cheaper electronics also plays a significant role as companies look to add the latest systems and features to their current corporate systems.

"There is growing pressure for IT organizations to consider purchasing consumer PCs primarily as a cost-saving measure for the business and also to appease users who are becoming more technology-astute," says Leslie Fiering, research vice-president at Gartner, in a report released in November, 2007. What companies quickly find, however, is that cut-rate consumer PCs are no substitute for quality-manufactured business-class systems.

"Companies should realize 'the premium price' for a business-class system reflects real value in system stability, comprehensive quality testing and extensive ongoing services," noted Fiering in a report summary.

In fact, most corporate buyers now consider such things as a manufacturer's testing procedures and quality assurance programs, product lifecycle and overall system design rather than simply basing purchase decisions on the latest features and a lower total cost of ownership (TCO), Gartner point out. In short, business consumers are willing to pay more for a manufacturer's investments in the right test and quality control tools and services.

Upping the Outsourced Ante -- and Taking Accountability

One strategy to address product quality is to think about product life cycles and customer satisfaction at the point of manufacturer -- by putting a lifecycle spin on quality assurance and control. This is especially effective in an environment where components are outsourced from all corners of the globe and utilizing a testing system that can maintain high quality is an operational and survival mandate.

In the best situation, this automated and intuitive test environment would provide real-time data capture and analysis across the production process and be able to quickly pinpoint product quality and production issues, and perform on-the-fly analysis to ensue that manufactured products perform as designed -- well before they are packaged and sent onto consumers.

The drive toward more intuitive quality lifecycle management approaches seems to be catching on at leading companies worldwide like IBM, Microsoft, Motorola and others. The proactive QLM movement is also seeping into universities and colleges where the next generation of executives is being groomed to tackle the manufacturing issues of tomorrow.

Earlier this year, Georgia Institute of Technology's Manufacturing Research Center (MARC) reached an agreement with Boeing Global Technology to jointly investigate and develop innovative manufacturing and quality control technologies. These new techniques will initially be applied to aerospace products, but eventually seep into other products and technologies as well.

Georgia Tech joins MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Cambridge University (UK), Caltech, Stanford, and others as part of Boeing's effort improve manufacturing efficiencies and develop improved methods, techniques and processes.

The ultimate goal is to develop a system that can deliver quality management intelligence from all levels of the production cycle, functioning more as a proactive than reactive testing and measurement environment. Using this manufacturing intelligence, any manufacturer can grasp product quality -- from start to finish:

  • Track failures in the field as well as warranty issues, and factor them back into the design and testing cycles to prevent future occurrences;
  • Aggressively test components provided by outside suppliers, and match performance across the entire product lifecycle;
  • Manage supplier data, as well as variables in the market that may impact component quality or supply;
  • Swiftly responding to user complaints and issues, and take action on issues by applying corrections and improvements at the point of manufacture.

By integrating this intelligence -- and placing it across entire product lifecycles -- manufacturers can think, and develop products, smarter. Doing this allows them not only to avoid falling victim to any surprise kinks -- and the spiraling affects of devastating product recalls -- but also ensure their newest and innovative products can deliver the revenue, customer trust and positive market reception that drives real growth in today's competitive world.

Chris Rehl is director of marketing for CIMTEK. CIMTEK provides Quality Lifecycle Management to help manufacturers leverage critical information on performance, functionality and reliability captured in the test phase to drive higher quality designs, smarter sourcing and consistently profitable products. Its customers include, Motorola, Honeywell, Siemens, Visteon, Delphi, and DuPont. http://www.cimtek.com/

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