Going Green -- Without Losing Sight of Quality

June 18, 2008
Easing the transformation to environmentally-sound supply chains with product tests

Manufacturers today are undergoing one of their most drastic shifts ever -- a major green movement that's re-defining the way products are brought to market. Stringent environmental regulations are asking manufacturers to do more, with less environmental strain.

This can spell a series of challenges for manufacturers -- as they "re-invent the wheel" in this move to green. In some cases, it means overhauling existing design and assembly strategies. For others, it means eliminating the use of components that have driven product innovation for decades. Although environmentally effective, overhauling these traditional processes can leave serious gaps in product quality -- which can not only put dents in a manufacturer's reputation, but also spell the loss of critical customer service levels and revenue sources.

It's for this reason manufacturers need to think smarter, bigger and bolder to embrace this change, and ensure the most environmentally-efficient supply chains. This requires taking a deeper look into product test data -- specifically the intelligence needed to ensure low cost, high quality products can be brought to market, while fully complying with today's growing green standards.

Easing Increasingly Environmental Pressures for Electronic Manufacturers

This ongoing green evolution is magnified for electronic manufacturers, who face added accountability and scrutiny. In addition to consumers demanding the most innovative products at the lowest prices, environmental compliance standards -- such as RoHS, WEEE and REACH -- are requiring manufacturers to design and assemble products specific ways. They restrict the use of certain materials -- such as lead, cadmium, mercury and chromium -- that have been commonplace among the most successful product development strategies for years. And they are altering the waste and recycling of products at the tail end of their lifecycles.

Failure to abide by these standards can spell the most devastating consequences: Hefty financial fines, market share losses, trade restrictions, liability issues and even criminal charges. While most manufacturers are successful in complying with these growing regulations, many times an over-focus on them is resulting in potential implications on product quality.

For example, changes to the design and assembly of electronics have been largely shaped by the ROHS directive which prohibits the use of six toxic substances including lead, which has historically been synonymous with soldering processes. The use of no-lead solder requires a higher soldering temperature, which can lead to damaged components. It has also showed a tendency for tin whiskers to develop, often resulting in short circuits and arcing, in addition to reduced reliability and longevity

Balancing Green with Quality: Manufacturing and Test Data Shows the Way

Quality needs to lie at the forefront of even the most robust green initiatives. More manufacturers today are learning how holistic product lifecycle testing strategies deliver environmentally-friendly supply chains, without sacrificing the high levels of reliability, market speed and cost savings customers rely on.

For example, several electronic manufacturers are placing added focus at each step of the product lifecycle. They start with product design, where long-term quality begins. These manufacturers are gaining accurate visibility into component, test, quality and repair data throughout the entire product lifecycle, to build the best product possible.

Manufacturers are also turning to test data in the production process, ensuring environmentally-friendly design concepts can be brought to reality. The trigger for this resides within the myriad of data gathered and analyzed across multiple processes, from globally remote contract manufacturers, to identify controllable sources of variance that eliminate waste, improve production yields and ensure production quality remains at peak levels.

This data includes:

  • Quality data obtained from component manufacturers, seeing to it that key performance and margin specifications are verified before the production process begins. The sooner non-conforming components can be removed from the production cycle, the less scrap will be generated.
  • Information from assembly test steps including Automated Optical Inspection (AOI), XRay and In-Circuit Testing (ICT), which can be gathered and analyzed to identify process and mechanical design issues early on, including problems with soldering.
  • Functional test data which is collected during assembly to ensure proper operation of sub-assemblies before moving to subsequent assembly steps. Close analysis of these testing steps can point out excessive testing time, which can be addressed to increase yields and overall production efficiencies.
  • Final system testing data, to verify that products designed are built and operated the way that is intended -- guaranteeing further reliability for customers.
  • Post-sales support and repair center operations data, which can enhance the efficiency of customer interactions, increase repair operations efficiencies and provide a complete product genealogy linked back to the initial design phase for further design improvements. Building better products lead to fewer returns -- and lower fuel consumption, shipping and travel demands.

The benefits are loud and clear. Well-designed and implemented product testing strategies enable high-level product development for manufacturers, while minimizing environmental strain. This ensures the highest level of product reliability and functionality during the manufacturing process -- minimizing excess scrap, re-work cycles and material consumption that commonly hinder green efficiencies.

Bracing for the Future: Staying Green

As more regulations take shape, green manufacturing strategies will require higher levels of sophistication. Fickle customer demand will continue to grow -- and the metrics for manufacturing excellence will shift. As seen with incidents of shoddy manufacturing performance in China, product reliability levels are becoming even more synonymous with customer service excellence. Consumers are viewing quality in the same light as low costs and market speed. Implementing holistic test strategies that minimize the risk of product failure -- as manufacturers tread emerging green market conditions and data becomes more subject to frequently changing business demands -- is an absolute must.

Changes to the way products are designed, the prominence of certain components and assembly strategies -- will be inevitable. Restrictions of lead and mercury are just the beginning. Advanced fabrication processes will increase the use of smaller, more compact components. The next few years will also see an outbreak in the use of re-used and re-cycled components within electronic devices. This has already started today, as many retailers are offering trade-in programs for cell phones, portable MP3 players and gaming systems, offering heavy financial incentives. All of these shifts could bring more questions around quality implications.

Manufacturing networks will continue to globalize, resulting in the need to reduce carbon footprints across more locations and ensure standards are upheld across a variety of geographic locations. All manufacturers will need to gain an understanding of and learn how to effectively communicate requirements across the organization. A manufacturer in China, assembling products bound for the U.S., will need to be kept abreast with all regulations. Even the smallest lag can result in major hits on reliability.

In the face of these massive changes, one area that will remain constant is the continual need for high-quality product development. Balancing green with quality will always boil down to how well manufacturers can collect and analyze manufacturing test and process data. It will surely make a better tomorrow for not only the environment -- but for customers who deserve the highest level of service.

Chris Rehl is the director of marketing for CIMTEK, which provides quality lifecycle management (QLM) test solutions -- software, systems and hardware -- ensuring high quality, cost and speed in bringing products to market. Dozens of electronic, medical, automotive and avionics manufacturers work with the company to convert real-world test data into actionable analysis across the entire product lifecycle, from design and sourcing to production and warranty support. http://www.cimtek.com/

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