Failure modes and effect analysis is a tool to identify potential failures and prioritize based on severity, occurrence, and detection. I like to describe FMEA as an organized brainstorm. You probably have some experience with FMEA.
In some industries, there is a high expectation or mandate to do an FMEA study. In some industries FMEA maybe just another tool to consider using during various stages of the product or asset lifecycle.
In my opinion, FMEA should be a part of your project plan when it is likely to add value.
Value in the sense that the organization will receive an adequate benefit based on the investment to conduct the FMEA study.
If you are in a situation where FMEA is a customer or contract requirement, you still may or may not need to actually conduct an FMEA. I mean a study where you and your team actually participate and benefit from the work. I’ve seen organizations simply outsource the FMEA study to a third party or to an individual to fill out the form.
The customer receives a copy as proof that the study was accomplished. In one organization the design and manufacturing team knew the study was being done by a third party simply to meet the requirements of the contract. Most never saw the report and those that did review it found it of little value, other than the customer agreed the requirement was met.
What a waste of time and money.
In some cases, even when an FMEA is required, it may be useful for the team. But how do you know if it’s worth the investment?
We only find what we already know
FMEA, when done by a team, may result in a list of potential failures that are already known.
It is possible the team does not reveal anything new. Nothing new other than a little bit of added discussion around each issue is not a good use of time.
The members of the study bring with them what they know about the product and the potential failure modes. Most engineers inherently consider the weaknesses and attempt to design or work to minimize the failures.
If the team already has methods to communicate and share the potential failure modes and priorities, then conducting an FMEA is merely a repeat of other work.
When does FMEA make sense?
One of the best FMEA’s I’ve seen was for a bottling machine. This machine is large and capable of positioning and filling 200 bottles per minute, including capping the bottle. The team was to focus on potential improvements to improve the equipment availability. It is a complex piece of equipment.
The team included equipment operators, maintenance technicians, manufacturing engineers, quality engineers and equipment vendor engineers. The team structure included people that didn’t normally get the chance to discuss the operation of the equipment. The operators with their first-hand knowledge of the problems helps the rest of the team understand the nature of failures. The vendor engineers helped everyone know the possibilities and limitations of the design intent. The entire group contributed and learned from each other’s point of view.
While everyone brought in what they already knew, not everyone knew what everyone else did. The resulting set of action items actually made a difference and significant improvement to the equipment’s operation. Yet, not any one group would have been able to achieve as much. The value stemmed from the sharing and understanding of the issues from many voices.
In this case, for a complex piece of equipment and assembling a team from operators to vendors enabled the group to make a difference.
Communicate with your team
In general, an FMEA is a tool to help your team communicate with each other. If that is already occurring, FMEA may not be the right activity. If different parts of the organization are working to locally optimize solutions or no one group understands all aspects of the equipment, then FMEA make sense.
Another case to consider FMEA is when the potential failures are not well know. It may be a new material, process, or design, which the team has little prior experience. Then the brainstorm elements of the FMEA may reveal areas that need exploration and understanding. The ‘what if’ discussion provides a means to consider areas previously not explored. The process then expands the team’s awareness of potential failure modes, thus improving the team’s ability to detect the issues when they occur.
FMEA provides value when it guides the subsequent product testing by highlighting areas to monitor.
Without that insight, we may not include specific measurements or detection capability to determine if the potential issues occur or not. Without the awareness, we would miss the chance to detect real problems.
FMEA is a good tool. It has a long history and many successes. When done well and when the potential for value exists then conducting an FMEA study make sense. If done just to check of a requirements box or when little uncertainty about potential failure exist, then spend your team’s time focused on other tasks.
The key is when the study will help share insights and knowledge to reveal and prioritize potential failures. FMEA has value in building consensus and awareness when connected to other actives like product testing or improvement experimentation.
Think about and choose to do or not do FMEA based on your specific situation.