Product reliability goes a long way toward ensuring customer loyalty. When products fail we feel annoyed and inconvenienced – or worse. If failure results in injury or even loss of life, the response is outrage and the impact to the manufacturer can be incredibly damaging.
Consider the lawsuit Toyota found itself dealing with after acceleration problems caused crashes, injuries and even deaths. Toyota ultimately agreed to a $1.1 billion settlement – the largest in history for the U.S. automobile industry.
Companies too often include reliability as a checklist item in product design rather than truly incorporating it throughout the product lifecycle. While the latter approach requires more planning and effort, it pays off in reduced time to market, lower development costs, fewer customer service calls after the sale, decreased warranty costs, and, perhaps most important, higher customer satisfaction.
Fragmented organization. With so many benefits to be reaped, why do companies fail to address reliability in this comprehensive fashion? Oftentimes the culprit is organizational structure. Many companies assign someone to analyze and report on reliability as part of product design. However, this person often sits outside of the engineering design team. And because they know a dedicated employee is focused on reliability, design engineers don’t see it as integral to their process.
Some companies make reliability predictions after the product design has been determined, rather than making it a fundamental part of the entire development process. In addition, they often gauge overall reliability rather than the reliability of individual components and sub-assemblies. As a result, they miss the opportunity to identify areas with a higher risk for failure – and boost overall reliability by addressing these weaknesses.
A closed-loop process. The solution is to create a closed-loop process for setting and gauging reliability throughout the product lifecycle. This should include five critical steps:
- Determine the desired level of reliability during the product requirements stage and translate that into design.
- Assess reliability, including at the component and assembly level, during the design process and testing phase.
- Develop manufacturing processes to mitigate the risks of missing reliability goals.
- Track how the product is performing in the field to identify and address any unanticipated issues that may be negatively impacting reliability.
- Feed all this data back into product requirements to inform the next iteration of design.
Mitigating risk for measurable impact. This process is especially critical in industries such as electronics where a fair amount of design and manufacturing is outsourced. In such environments, companies can easily cede control over product quality to their partners. By taking a closed-loop approach to reliability, they can regain some control over quality and avoid major issues in the field, such as batteries melting because a supplier used an inferior component.
A large consumer electronics manufacturer provides a great example of how the closed-loop approach works in the field. The company focused first on implementing failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) into its design process and implementing an integrated quality and reliability solution with built-in reliability tools. It also embedded an FMEA process during design, training thousands of engineers on the value of risk analysis and mitigation.
By implementing this closed-loop process, the manufacturer was able to recognize and mitigate failures during the design process that could directly impact the customer experience and potentially critical business operations. Additionally, it was able to identify trends of field failures much earlier, which enabled it to initiate and complete the root cause/corrective action process prior to some customers experiencing an issue.
By identifying and addressing failures during the design phase the company estimated it could reduce in-service failures as much as seven percent, a figure that would translate into millions of dollars of savings in reduced warranty claims.
Manufacturers clearly have much to gain by building reliability analysis into the entire product development lifecycle.
With the right processes and tools in place, product designers can identify and remedy potential reliability issues much earlier in the development process. This limits the need to redesign the product later on, when costs are much higher and delays in getting to market are much greater. It also greatly reduces the likelihood of field failures that lead to increased customer support calls, larger warranty claims, and even catastrophic product recalls.