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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.

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.




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.

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.

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

Adding Value With Less March 13, 2014

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, strategy.
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One of the most common complaints I hear from managers and individual contributors is that they never have the resources they need to get the job done. The schedule, deliverables, or both are impossibly unrealistic because they’ve been denied the budget, the hiring authority, or the access to the internal staff that they really need. When they fail to achieve their objectives, it’s because upper management (or whoever has the authority to approve their requests) got in their way.

In fact, they’re probably right: upper management may have been directly responsible for refusing their request for more time or resources, but were they given any reason to do otherwise? People often present these decisions as an equivalency between results and resources. “I can complete this if you give me that.” But, have they presented a convincing argument that supports that equivalency? Have they presented other options, or explained the risks of operating with less-than-adquate resources?

Put yourself in the perspective of the person who controls the resources. Their best-case scenario is that you will be able to do the job within the schedule with no additional cost beyond what has already been budgeted. There’s going to be some natural resistance to any request for more resources (or at least there should be if they’re managing within a budget), and the burden of proof is on the requestor.

The mistake that people make is framing this as a binary choice: either they get everything they ask for, or they’re doomed to failure. As a manager, I’m generally open to multiple options. I want to know what can be done, and what the risks are, at a variety of “price points.” I want to brainstorm about pros and cons, priorities, and alternatives that may not be obvious. It’s this kind of collaborative problem solving that leads to better decisions and adds value in an organization. It also helps the team understand and appreciate the constraints that the business is operating within, which builds commitment. Finally, making tradeoffs and learning how to get things done with less are important skills that strengthens the organization.

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