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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.

Measuring Service Quality August 1, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Operations, Quality.
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Product quality seems easy to measure. We just have to sit down with the people who will be using the product or the part or the subassembly and ask them what physical characteristics are important: dimensions and tolerances, chemical composition, electrical performance measurements, strength, weight, and the like. These are things we can then measure, either directly or through test results, on a representative sample from the production process. If we’ve defined the “fitness for use” characteristics correctly, based on what the customer tells us, then we can determine whether or not our processes can reliably produce products that meet those requirements.

Service quality is harder to measure. The trouble starts with defining the requirements. Who are the customers and what do they want? There may be a lot of them, possibly millions of them, with new ones every day. They each have their own set of unique expectations that might change from day to day. They may not be able to articulate their requirements, or at least not in a way that can be acted upon. Services are typically customized for individual customers, and there’s no standard level of performance. What’s acceptable to one customer may not be acceptable to another.


The Battle Over Discrepant Material January 19, 2016

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Quality, Supply chain.
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Quality issues have been on my mind a lot lately, specifically some of the more frustrating things that I’ve had to deal with during my career as a quality manager. In my last job my team was responsible for managing the discrepant material review (DMR) process for our US-based factory.

For those who are unfamiliar, the DMR process is how most factories deal with raw materials or other inputs that have been identified as possibly defective and unsuitable for use. Incoming materials that don’t pass visual inspection or other testing are supposed to be sequestered so they can’t go into production. Later, the DMR process is used to determine what to do with that material. The choices are usually:


Check Out “Document Center” December 11, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Quality, Supply chain.
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I don’t typically use this forum for recommendations, but here’s something I can support enthusiastically. My friends at Document Center manage and sell a comprehensive collection of industry and government standards from around the world. Customers who want to clearly express their requirements and quality expectations should be referencing standards in their communications with suppliers. Standards are developed through the cooperative efforts of experienced teams with deep understanding of their respective industries. While your specific product may have unique requirements, it’s important to use standards as a starting point rather than creating something from scratch. Your suppliers should already be familiar with them, and you should be as well.

If you’re looking for standards that are appropriate for your industry, or the most recent version of a standard that you’re currently using, go to Document Center. While you’re there, take a look at the guest blog that I contributed to the site last month at: Does Anyone In China Pay Attention to Standards?.

Why Should a Supplier Work Harder For You? September 22, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in International management, Management & leadership, Quality, Supply chain.
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A recent LinkedIn discussion addressed the question of the best strategy for dealing with poor supplier performance. A lot of the respondents seemed to advocate a punitive approach, either threatening the loss of future business if performance doesn’t improve, or combing through the terms & conditions in the contract for enforcement language. I’ve always thought that there’s a lot of similarity between managing suppliers and managing subordinates, and I wonder if some of these same people threaten their teams with punitive actions when individual performance doesn’t meet expectations.

I’m not a psychologist, but I’ve always been suspicious about the long-term effectiveness of threats. A supplier who works to avoid negative consequences may achieve a minimum level of performance, but probably not much more than that. If you expect your supplier to represent your interests when you’re not actively observing their performance, you have to provide a reason for them to do so. What’s in it for them? An ongoing relationship with future business? That assumes that the supplier actually wants or values your business, which is not a given, and that you are sincerely prepared to switch suppliers if you don’t get the performance you expect.

Two important questions to consider before threatening to switch suppliers are: (1) What is the switching cost, including the risk to current production? and (2) Is switching suppliers really going to lead to higher performance? Regarding the latter question, there’s an assumption that the supplier is the cause of the poor performance. Before changing suppliers you need to be confident that the same performance problems won’t be repeated elsewhere.

A supplier is more likely to behave as a partner if they get something more out of the relationship than money for services rendered. So, what do suppliers want? Here are some examples:

  • Large, well-known customers that they can use in their advertising to attract new customers. This is especially valuable for smaller suppliers that are looking for revenue growth.
  • Technical capabilities that can be leveraged to other customers. If the customer’s requirements drive the supplier to develop new technology, or higher levels of quality or throughput, then the supplier will be able to attract other customers.
  • Entry into new markets. Suppliers that focus on specific markets (e.g., consumer electronics, semiconductors, automotive, aerospace) are at risk due to economic and demand cycles. A diversified portfolio of customers and markets provides more stability.
  • Predictable demand for better asset utilization. Suppliers are just like any other business: they like being able to confidently plan into the future. This is so important that some suppliers are willing to give a discount if the customer is willing to commit to use a fixed level of their capacity over a period of time.

Most suppliers operate with very small profit margins, and if they are in a position to choose their customers, they have to consider the cost to service each customer. If you can’t give them a reason to value your business, then you shouldn’t be surprised or disappointed if they don’t go the extra mile.

Competitive Advantage and Quality June 11, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Quality, strategy.
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I learned a lot when I got my MBA, and it was well-worth the time and money spent, but when I think about it now there are only a few concepts and themes that have really stuck with me. One is Michael Porter’s writings about the two primary sources of competitive advantage: cost and technology.

If you compete on cost, you’re supposed to be constantly looking for ways to reduce your internal expenses and cost of sales, eliminating waste, and improving productivity and throughput so you can offer customers a market-leading price for your product or service. If you compete on technology, you’re supposed to be constantly innovating, identifying un-met or un-expressed customer needs, and developing and delivering market-leading solutions that meet those needs before your competitors do, which usually allows you to command a price premium. Some companies try to do both at the same time, applying their cost management efforts on operations and market fulfillment, however companies that fail to focus their strategies will fail to compete.

This is pretty simple view of competitive advantage, which is probably part of the reason why it’s so well-known and memorable, but it makes intuitive sense, at least to me. I see examples everywhere. Some retailers and consumer electronics companies aggressively drive out cost in order to be able to offer low prices (Walmart); others use technology to create an experience that encourages customers to pay more (Starbucks, Apple). I believe that Walmart and Apple are equally innovative, the difference is what advantage the innovation is supposed to serve.

Where does quality fit in? Can a company compete on quality, and what does that look like? Attention to quality can support either the cost or technology strategy. The cost benefits of improved quality should be fairly obvious, including reduced expenses due to scrap or rework, internal testing and inspection, and post-sales support and warranty. These costs are not always measured and tracked, but they’re real. The hard part is understanding the relationship between actions that save money today and the risk that those actions will lead to additional cost in the future, such as buying cheap parts that fail in the field.

Quality supports the technology strategy in two possible ways. First, there’s a timeliness issue when you compete on technology; you have to get there before your competitor does. A focus on quality during product development will mean faster time-to-market. It’s important to note that product quality should match customer expectations. It doesn’t have to be perfect; customers can be pretty forgiving when your offering is technically superior, and especially so when the market is still new.

Second, a reputation for high quality (whether deserved or not) enhances the technology strategy and helps sustain a premium market price. We tend to think of technology in terms of advanced features and performance, but quality should be considered one of those dimensions as well.

Companies may not deliberately set out to compete on the basis of quality, but quality should definitely be considered an element of either the cost or technology strategy.

Are Face-to-Face Meetings Obsolete? April 24, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Communication, International management, Management & leadership.
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I’ll get right to it: no, they’re not. Yes, we have the technology to communicate instantly with people all over the world, whether by voice or text or even video. We can share files and review the same presentation in real-time. If a project has been parsed into reasonable chunks, we can multiply our productivity by “following the sun.”

And yet, the technology does not guarantee effective communication. Faster worldwide access to co-workers or customers or suppliers will not necessarily overcome distrust, misalignment, ambiguity, and confusion. Communication requires not just a channel, but also a sender and a receiver where the signal is processed into usable information. It’s that signal processing step that we overlook when we focus only on speed and accessibility.

I believe it’s important to establish a professional relationship with distant partners before relying on electronic communication. This is going to sound bad, but it’s easier for me to ignore someone’s e-mail or voice mail if I’ve never met them face-to-face and spent time with them, ideally over a meal. This is especially important if I live in a different country than the other person. Differences in language and culture can be very hard to overcome without a foundation of trust.

I understand that business travel costs money, and this is yet another situation where we try to balance real costs in the present against hoped-for benefits in the future. Travel budgets are always an easy target during times of expense reductions. I don’t have the numbers to build a financial justification, but I still believe it’s worth it, at least at the start of a new relationship with remote co-workers or a supplier. Periodic travel after that helps to maintain the relationship and head off any sources of confusion or deviation.

Expanded wireless access and faster speeds will enable better video conferencing, but I doubt it will ever provide a substitute for the informal and spontaneous communication that happens when people are in the same place at the same time. I love the new technology, but in the end it’s people who do the work.



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.

New Slide Deck: Subcontracting Quality March 20, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Quality, Supply chain.
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In March 2014 I presented a talk called “Subcontracting Quality” at my local chapter meeting of the American Society for Quality. Here’s a link to the file on SlideShare:

Subcontracting Quality: Extending Your Quality System to the Supply Chain from timwrodgers

Quality, Rework, and Throughput March 3, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Process engineering, Quality, Supply chain.
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Some years ago when I was managing a software quality department I got into a heated conversation with one of my colleagues about our testing. “If your team would just stop finding defects, we can wrap up this project.” I had to point out that it wasn’t my team that introduced the defects in the first place. Of course no one deliberately does that. Software engineers want to write new code, not fix their (or anyone else’s) mistakes.

Quality isn’t only important for external customers and end-users. Internal operations should also improve quality as a way of focusing limited resources on value-added activities. In manufacturing, repair and rework are part of the “hidden factory” that reduces throughput and can prevent the plant from running profitably.

This isn’t hypothetical. At the China factory where I worked my goal was to improve end-of-line yield to the point where we could eliminate a single rework station for each production line. With more than 30 lines and 2 shifts that added up to some significant savings as well as an increase in capacity.

We’re human, mistakes will be made, and the complexity of our designs virtually guarantees that there will be unexpected outputs and interactions when we put those designs to the test in a service environment. However, we shouldn’t accept the frictional cost of fixing defects as an inherent inefficiency in the value delivery system. A defect found today is worth more than a defect found tomorrow, but a defect prevented by better design of products and processes has a far greater impact.

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