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Prototype Build Success and Ramp Readiness April 24, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Project management, Quality, Supply chain.
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It’s generally a bad idea to jump directly from product concept to market introduction. Any new hardware product benefits from early prototype builds that enable the design team to evaluate whether cost, quality, reliability, and performance objectives can be achieved. However there’s a big difference between being able to build one product that meets these specifications and being able to build hundreds or up to millions of products over the expected lifespan of the design. Prototype units are necessary for design evaluation, but prototype builds must be used to evaluate supply chain readiness to support the expected production ramp. Successful builds do not automatically lead to a successful transition to full production without explicit planning.

Each prototype build should have specific and measurable objectives, both for the design team and the production and supply chain management teams. When looking at the performance of the factory during the prototype build, there’s a tendency to focus on things like part availability and quality, tool capacity, operator training, and line readiness. Was everything in place to build the planned number of units at the scheduled time? Did the factory and the supply chain quickly and appropriately respond to unexpected events during the scheduled build?

This is all good, but somebody has to keep an eye on ramp readiness. It’s possible to have a series of “successful” builds without any effective preparation for the expected production volumes. Each build should bring the factory closer to a stable, capable, robust and repeatable process for manufacturing and delivery, and you can’t afford to wait until the ramp itself to discover what needs to be improved.

One of the overall measures I used at the factory in China was time-to-quality (TTQ). This is admittedly a lagging indicator that looks at how long it takes after the start-of-ramp to meet the required factory quality targets. The goal is TTQ = 0, meaning that the target is met at start-of-ramp, not several weeks later.

Ramp readiness requires attention to the functionally critical parts and production processes, as determined from an analysis of the design (DFM, FMEA), and an understanding of the risks to assurance of supply for the entire value chain. Standard statistical techniques for process capability and process control provide objective assessments, and contingency planning can minimize the impact of supply interruptions. Attention needs to be given to design stability during the weeks leading up to ramp; a late design change that isn’t fully evaluated in the factory introduces risk. The details will vary, but ramp readiness requires deliberate actions and doesn’t happen by accident.

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