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3D Printing and the Production Ramp August 8, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Product design, Quality, Supply chain.
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Yes, 3D printing is great. Incredibly intricate designs that have been virtually impossible to fabricate using traditional subtractive or injection molding technology can now be realized. The range of plastics and metallic materials that can be printed continues to grow. The falling prices for commercial printers makes them economically feasible for a variety of applications, including rapid prototyping and on-demand manufacturing of replacement parts for field repairs. The technology will continue to disrupt existing business models and help develop new ones, and I’m following all of this with great interest.

I’m especially interested to see how 3D printing will change traditional manufacturing, particularly for mass production. It’s one thing to build a single product that meets design and performance specifications, but it’s a different challenge to consistently make the quantities of products that are required to satisfy a larger market over an extended period of time at a cost that enables a profit. At some point I expect that established manufacturers will adopt 3D printing as a replacement for current fabrication technologies such as injection molding for some applications, however there are still significant cost and throughput advantages with the older processes.

Here are a couple of considerations:

  • Will the prototype design created using 3D printing still work with the volume production plan? Or, will it have to be re-designed to meet the manufacturer’s requirements and capabilities? A change in the fabrication method means re-visiting the discussion about design for manufacturability.
  • Are the materials used for the 3D printed prototype the same as those that will be used in the final product? What does that mean for functional and reliability testing of the prototype? Are those results still meaningful?

Again, it’s going to be interesting to see how this space develops.


Quality Decisions in Hindsight July 25, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Operations, Organizational dynamics, Process engineering, Product design.
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For the last several years there’s been at least one high-profile case of quality failure that captures the attention of the business press for months at a time. Since late 2015 and early 2016 we’ve been watching to see if air-bag supplier Takata, iconic auto maker Volkswagen, and fast food chain Chipotle will survive their highly-publicized quality missteps. There’s always a lot of apologizing to the public, and a commitment to conduct internal investigations to identify and eliminate the causes of field failures. Senior management and boards of directors scramble to regain the trust of their customers.

I’m not at all surprised by the frequency of these events. What surprises me is that these events don’t happen more often. We should expect to continue to hear about similar catastrophic quality problems from otherwise reputable companies despite all the talk about six sigma and customer satisfaction, and despite all the investments in quality improvement programs. It’s the nature of business.


“Dare to Know” Reliability Engineering Podcasts January 12, 2015

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Product design, Quality.
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Over the last several months I’ve been working on a project with my friend and former colleague Fred Schenkelberg on a series of podcasts with thought leaders in the world of reliability engineering. Reliability and quality professionals have a tough job, but they’re not alone. There’s a large and growing community of experienced engineers, managers, authors, and other experts who are available to share their practical expertise and insights. Our Dare to Know interviews provide the opportunity to hear from these leaders and learn about the latest developments in analysis techniques, reliability standards, and business processes.

You can access the interviews at Fred’s Accendo Reliability web site: http://www.fmsreliability.com/accendo/dare-to-know/

Let me know what you think, or if you’re interested in joining us for a future interview.

Can Business Process Variability Be a Good Thing? October 6, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Product design, Quality.
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At least once a month I see an on-line discussion that starts with someone taking the position that companies who focus on operational excellence using six-sigma or lean techniques are doomed because they can’t possibly be innovative at the same time. There seem to be several assumptions in this argument: (1) all companies must innovate in order to compete, (2) innovation in operations management somehow doesn’t count, (3) application of six-sigma or lean in one area of the business means that you can’t innovate elsewhere, and (4) innovation is inherently incompatible with six-sigma or lean. As you can probably guess, I don’t agree with all of those assumptions, and I’ve written about this previously in the context of design and product development processes (see Innovative Design vs. Lean Product Development).

I’d like to explore this a little further. We can quibble about definitions, but let’s assume that six-sigma is about reducing variability and lean is about eliminating waste. In the world of business processes, strict application of these techniques would mean strict adherence to standard processes, measuring the performance of these processes, and continuously improving them by finding and eliminating sources of variability and non-value-added activities. Should lean and six-sigma be universally applied to all business processes? Can some variability and “waste” actually be good for the business?

I think it is. Look, if you care about the result, and you need the result to be predictable and consistent, then you need a process. Innovation, however, isn’t predictable, by definition, and I can’t imagine constraining creativity with a process. If you’re not open to consider different ways of doing things, then you’re not going to be very good at anticipating or responding to disruptive changes in the market or competitive environment. You’ll be constrained by the current process and business model. Continuous improvement is good and necessary, but sometimes you have to throw out the old to make room for something new and better. There are many, many examples of businesses that became irrelevant because they focused entirely on improving a process that proved to be outdated and inflexible. The businesses that thrive are the ones who balance process improvement with process innovation.

Where does process innovation come from? Often it comes from people who are modifying existing processes to meet their needs, perhaps without any authorization. Instead of stamping out variability and enforcing conformity, we should be trying to understand why these changes are being made and why the existing process isn’t working. I’m not saying that we should allow everyone to do whatever they please, but we should recognize that innovation requires experimentation, and that means allowing for differences and variability.

Problems With Field Failure Analysis September 29, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Product design, Quality.
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We hate to hear from a customer that there’s been a problem with their product, but sometimes it happens, in spite of our efforts to create a robust design and manufacturing processes, and in spite of whatever testing, inspection, and audits we perform. We want the customer to know that we care, and we typically try to make it right, either by replacing or repairing the defective unit. We’d also like to rebuild confidence and assure the customer that we know what went wrong, and that we’ve implemented corrective action to prevent that problem from reoccurring.

Of course that last part assumes that we actually do know what went wrong, and that we understand the root cause and how to eliminate it. That’s why we investigate field failures. We want that failed unit back in our hands so we can take it apart and figure out what happened. We want to know the operating and environmental conditions, and we want to trace the manufacturing history back to individual parts. We’re looking for clues that can help us determine why this unit failed when others didn’t. We apply disciplined problem solving techniques and develop a convincing analysis that we can bring back to the customer.

That sounds good, but there are problems when you’re trying to use field failures to improve product quality, and I don’t think it’s all that easy. Here are two examples:

1. When I was at Foxconn in 2009-11 we built inkjet printers for Hewlett-Packard and reached a peak production volume of 3 million units a month. These were consumer electronics products that were primarily shipped to a worldwide network of distribution centers and retail channels. Customer returns were received by HP or a 3rd party , and a very small number of units made their way back to Foxconn for field failure analysis (FFA).

“No trouble found” (NTF) was always the leading “cause” on the FFA Pareto chart. Many of the returned printers were poorly packaged and poorly handled, making it hard to know where damage might have occurred. We never experienced a “class failure” that affected a large population of printers. The small percentage of returns left us wondering if we were looking at a statistically significant finding, or just a bunch of outliers that would be expected from any complex design and manufacturing process. If we did find a broken part or an error in assembly (both very rare), we would send an alert to the appropriate supplier or production area, but generally the value of FFA hardly seemed to be worth the effort.

2. The other situation was my last position where we built solar inverters that were typically installed as part of a large construction project to support a vast “solar farm” of photovoltaic panels for power generation. Inverter production was relatively low volume, and inverters were often customized to meet the specific requirements of the customer. A field failure after installation was addressed by a team of mobile repair technicians who would be dispatched to the site.

The repair team’s performance was measured in part on how quickly they could get the inverter up and running again, and they weren’t going to spend much time trying to understand the root cause of the failure. Their standard approach was to swap out components or subsystems, guided by their technical training, past failures and data logs, until they found a combination that worked. Sometimes the replaced parts would be returned for analysis, but never the entire inverter. Returned parts were either damaged so badly by electrical or thermal failure that they could not be analyzed, or else they passed all testing against their design specifications. We struggled to determine whether any problem was due to defective parts, poor workmanship in assembly, or a product design that unexpectedly subjected the part to conditions that were beyond the part’s design capabilities.

I don’t think these are unusual situations. FFA often must contend with small numbers of returned units and the possibility that they may be compromised by poor handling at the “crime scene.” Data logs from the failed unit may be available to help understand the operating conditions before the failure, but that depends on whether the customer will grant access. A broken part without the larger system doesn’t tell you much, but often that’s all you get. Even if the analysis does get to a root cause in manufacturing or the supply chain, it’s too easy to dismiss it as an outlier. Given all these limitations, why do we put our faith in FFA as part of our quality management system? Is this just to make our customer feel better?

Quality Under Constraints: Making the Best of It July 9, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Product design, Quality.
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Lately I’ve been seeing news reports that illustrate the difficult environment that most quality professionals operate in. Here’s one example: executives from the US Chemical Safety Board (CSB) were recently called to testify before the US House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to address recent, highly-publicized delays and whistle-blower complaints. Former board members and employees have described a dysfunctional culture where criticism of management is considered “disloyal.” Independent investigators have reported a large and growing backlog of unfinished investigations, a situation made worse by employee attrition. The former employees report a failure to prioritize the pending investigations, “nor is there any discussion of the priorities.” The current CSB Chairman cited a lack of resources in his testimony: “We are a very small agency charged with a huge mission of investigating far more accidents than we have the resources to tackle.”

Obviously the report of a dysfunctional culture at the CSB is something that should be seriously investigated and addressed. However, my interest in this story is the struggle to prioritize investigations, do a thorough job, and close them out while operating within a constrained budget and increasing workload. I think everyone has to deal with this kind of problem in their work: too much to do and not enough time or resources to do it all with the level of completeness and quality that we would like. The old joke is you can’t have cost and schedule and quality, you can only choose two.

However, people who work in quality feel this problem more acutely than most. After all, you can directly measure cost and schedule, but it’s a lot harder to measure quality objectively. Quality professionals deal with statistical probabilities and risks, rarely with 100% certainties. In most cases, all you can do is minimize the risk of failure within the given constraints, and make sure everyone understands the inherent assumptions.

A good example is the hardware product development environment. The release schedule and ship dates are often constrained by contractual commitments to channels or customers. If the design work runs longer than planned, as it almost always does when you’re doing something new, the time to fully test and qualify the design before going into production gets squeezed. This is the same problem that happens with teams that use the old waterfall model for software development.

Yes, you shouldn’t wait until the end of the project to start thinking about quality, and there are certainly things you can do to enhance quality while you’re doing the work, and sometimes quality itself can be a constraint (as in highly-regulated environments). However I contend that managing quality will always be about prioritizing; applying good judgment based on experience, and data, and statistical models; and generally doing the best you can within constraints. Ultimately our success in managing quality should be judged by the soundness of our processes and methods, and our commitment to continuous improvement.

For the CSB, these are the questions I would ask if I were on the House Committee looking into their effectiveness: What is the quality requirement for their investigation reports, and how well do they understand it? How much faster could they release reports if those requirements were changed, while still operating under a limited staff and budget? What is their process for prioritizing investigations? CSB management should certainly be changed if the work environment has become dysfunctional, but they should also be changed if they can’t articulate a clear process for managing quality within the constraints they’ve been given.




Seeing the Forest to Improve Quality May 14, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Product design, Quality, Supply chain.
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A few weeks ago I listened to a presentation by a quality engineer who gave an overview of his company’s processes for measuring and improving first-pass yield (FPY). He started with a fairly standard graph showing the trend in FPY over time, and later presented a detailed breakdown of the individual defects found at the end-of-line testing of the product. It was a typical Pareto analysis, with a problem solving focus on the defects that occurred most-frequently.

All very straightforward and by-the-book, but it seemed to me that there was something missing. Certainly part of our job in quality is to address the problems that occur most often, but it should also be about detecting trends and implementing preventive action, not just corrective action.

I asked the speaker if he had tried to classify the individual defects into categories of some kind (Answer: no). In this case, for a hardware product, one simple classification scheme would be to group the defects by root cause, such as design, workmanship, supplier, or test procedure. A large number of defects in one root cause category would indicate the need for a more generalized problem solving approach that prevents different, but similar, defects from occurring in the future.

You might get there eventually, if you ask enough “whys” during the corrective action root cause analysis, but too often this results instead in a localized fix to a specific defect. We don’t see the forest for the trees, and we end up chasing individual defects instead of addressing the real causes. It may look good to reduce or eliminate defects one-at-a-time, but in quality we should be working toward defect prevention, and that requires more detailed analysis.

Improving Quality in China March 27, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Process engineering, Product design, Quality, Supply chain.
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Many years ago people would complain about “cheap Japanese” products, but today few people would associate Japanese brands with poor quality. The turn-around is widely-attributed to Deming, and Taguchi, and Juran, and other evangelists who taught not only the tools and processes, but also the long-term benefits that can be realized when a company adopts good practices and a culture of quality.

Today I hear people complaining about poor quality in Chinese-made parts and products, and there have been several widely-publicized incidents (see Aston-Martin and counterfeit parts). Many customers have decided to move their production and seek part suppliers in other locations, including “re-shoring” to North America, in-part because they’ve concluded that any cost savings due to cheaper labor is outweighed by the costs of poor quality. It’s hard to say whether this will have a negative impact on the worldwide consumer perception of Chinese brands such as Lenovo, Haier, and others.

Some people have tried to find cultural explanations, suggesting that individuals in the US, or Europe, or Japan are generally more likely to take pride in their workmanship than their Chinese counterparts, and therefore deliver better quality even if no one is watching. Others look for differences in education and training, and specifically point to the traditional Chinese emphasis on rote learning that discourages creativity and adaptation.

I worked in a factory in China for almost two years (see my other blog “Managing in China”), and I’ve used Chinese suppliers for over ten years. It’s dangerous and un-wise to generalize in a country of over a billion people, but I think the problem has less to do with individual skill and more to do with priorities and expectations. Margins are typically very small at suppliers and contract manufacturers, and unless there are clear incentives or penalties for quality performance these suppliers will cut corners, substitute materials, and, yes, occasionally ship defective parts because it costs money to scrap or repair. The performance of an individual machinist or assembler is determined by the priorities set by their line supervisor, and the highest priority is usually meeting the production quota, not high quality.

That being said, there is a growing movement in China to improve quality as more companies realize the internal and external benefits. Internal: lower cost production, specifically when scrap and rework can be prevented. External: a differentiator when competing for business. Customers can help move this along by making it clear that quality is a requirement for any future business awards. Competition will lead to improved quality if customers insist on it.

I don’t believe this is a uniquely-Chinese issue. Unless we start demanding better quality from our suppliers, we will surely be complaining about poor quality from Indonesia, or Vietnam, or any other alternative. Japanese brands improved their quality in the last century in-part to compete more effectively with US and European brands. If we insist on better quality, Chinese firms will surely do the same.

Is Your Company Really Committed to Quality? February 11, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Product design, Project management, Quality, Supply chain.
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In a recent post I wrote about suppliers who claim to be committed to quality, but may not actually behave that way. Before getting too carried away with improving quality in the supply chain, it’s probably a good idea to understand your own company’s commitment to quality, although I see nothing wrong with holding your suppliers to a higher standard. It may seem impressive when businesses highlight quality as a core value, something that’s published on their web site and displayed on their walls, but is that just for show?

I’m not necessarily suggesting that there’s anything hypocritical or underhanded going on here. You may be able to  measure the quality of products and services against an objective standard, but it’s a lot harder to assess an organization’s commitment to quality from the daily actions of its employees.

Why is this worth knowing? It’s one thing to respond to quality issues after they occur, but if the business expects its employees to proactively make decisions that avoid quality issues, then the employees need to be calibrated with examples of expected behaviors. Also, if there is a separate quality function within the business, those people need to be able to match their effort to the expected results, particularly if the actual commitment to quality is less than advertised. In that case the people in the quality function will find themselves constantly battling with other functions (and possibly senior leadership) that don’t have the same priorities or sense of urgency.

The company may have framed slogans and quality awards in their lobby, but here are some questions that can help determine how serious they are:

  • What stories do people tell about quality? Are there any incidents from the company’s past that illustrate the commitment of senior leadership?
  • Has the company ever proactively initiated a product recall or major field repair at significant expense? How about a line shutdown that delayed shipment? What happened afterward? Was there finger-pointing and recriminations, or was this treated as an important opportunity for continuous learning and commitment?
  • Has the company ever delayed the scheduled release of a product or service to address a late test result?
  • Is there a regular review of customer-reported quality issues? Are engineering and development teams required to allocate time for improvement of previously-released products or services?
  • What is the attitude toward people who bring quality issues to light? Are they ignored, or brushed aside, or are their inputs valued and appreciated?
  • What’s the relationship with regulatory and certifying agencies and 3rd party auditors? Does the company spend weeks sweeping issues under the carpet to keep them hidden, or is this treated as an opportunity to consult with independent experts?
  • Is quality considered to be an external customer standard that must be met, or is it considered to be an internal imperative to reduce cost and increase throughput and productivity?

If quality is something that is managed as an afterthought, then no one should be surprised when quality crises happen. It’s just not a priority. However, if the company has a strategic quality requirement in order to compete effectively and maintain profitability, then they have to make sure that everyone understands their contribution to quality and behaves accordingly.

Higher Value for Higher Priced Employees November 22, 2013

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Product design, strategy, Supply chain.
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You can complain about it, but offshoring is not going away. Businesses will always look to reduce cost, and wherever there’s a significant difference in labor cost, that difference is going to attract interest. I’ve spent almost my entire career working at companies that have moved their supply chain and production factories to locations that have lower labor cost. For manufactured goods this savings must be weighed against other expenses to determine whether there’s a net gain, such as shipping costs and finished goods in-transit. For knowledge work where there’s virtually zero cost to instantly move the output from one part of the world to another (such as software), the advantage is even greater.

You can complain about it, but if you want to justify a higher cost of labor in one part of the world, you have to demonstrate that this labor provides higher value. The added cost must be offset by some benefit, ideally something that can be quantified. It’s important to distinguish between sources of higher value that are fundamental and relatively stable vs. those that can be eroded over time.

Here are some examples:

1. “We know how to do it here, they don’t know how to do it there.” Your design team, and factory, and supply base may be well-established in one location, but you’re wrong if you think that can’t be replicated somewhere else. There are smart, well-educated people all over the world, and it’s easier than ever to access their skills, especially for knowledge work. There will be training, start-up, and switching costs, and those will have to be evaluated against the steady-state labor cost savings, but it’s not impossible.

2. Cost of quality. This is related to #1 above. You may be able to produce output at a different location with lower labor cost, but does the quality of that output lead to additional expenses later, such as rework, field repair, and loss of customer loyalty? These can be addressed with specific improvement plans, depending on the causes of poor quality, and are not necessarily permanent conditions. As above, the costs to improve or maintain quality at any location should be compared with the labor savings.

3. Geography. This is an example of a more fundamental difference that may justify higher labor cost. Many businesses benefit from close physical proximity to their customers, enabling them to respond quickly to changes in market demand and mix without the burden of a long finished goods pipeline from their production sites. A hybrid approach is late-point differentiation where platforms are built ahead at low cost and later customized depending on the specific order. Another benefit of geography is co-design, where frequent, real-time interaction with customers leads to a better fit to their requirements. Some companies will overcome this one by using available technology to communicate with remote teams, or performing rapid prototyping locally to verify the design before shifting volume production elsewhere.

Note that geography can also be an overriding factor when there are political or economic barriers, such as regulatory or “local content” requirements.

My point is that if you insist on doing the work in a location with higher labor cost, you can’t assume that the corresponding value will always be worth the higher cost. Your survival as a business depends on your ability to identify, develop, exploit, and maintain a source of competitive advantage. Your choices about labor cost and geographic location should support your strategy to maintain competitive advantage, and that strategy should be regularly reviewed and updated to make sure you’re getting the value your paying for.

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