An effective product reliability process requires a strong team, at every level.
The team of employees within an organization that participate and impact product reliability is a vast and widespread group of people. They include members of the design team, design managers, quality and reliability engineers and managers, procurement engineers and managers, warranty managers, failure analysis specialists, members of the marketing and sales staff, members of the finance and manufacturing teams, and field service and call center staffs.
To a large degree, the final performance of a product relies on the skill of the product design team.
The industrial, electrical, mechanical, and other design engineers attempt to create a product that operates as intended, providing the functionality the customer expects. Successful designs do this elegantly, balancing cost, performance, time to market, and reliability along with a long list of other considerations, such as sustainability, recyclability, safety, manufacturability, and maintainability.
The design team creates the solution that attempts to meet all the constraints. Most design engineers intuitively understand that a product that fails to function before the end of the customers’ expected operating duration is considered a failure.
If a printer is expected to operate for five years in a home office environment and fails to print after two years, is has failed to meet the customers’ expectation of a five-year life. Design engineers design to avoid failures. [Petroski 1994] They use their judgment and experience to identify design weaknesses and to anticipate use conditions and the possible adverse effect on product performance.
The reliability role of design engineers is to make design decisions that provide an acceptable balance among all the constraints and demands on the design along with the product reliability expectations. A key role for the design engineer is to determine and understand the risks to reliability performance. This role may include performing failure mode and effect analysis (FMEA) and HALTs, modeling, simulation, and prototype testing. It is the design engineer who often understands the elements of design with the most unknowns, the most risk, and the least robustness. It is this knowledge that should prompt product testing, modeling, and simulations to aid in understanding the design decision options and strike the right balance for the final design.
Quality and Reliability Engineers
The role for quality and reliability engineers is often only limited by the individual’s initiative. The focus is on product Q &R and includes influences across the entire organization. The design team requires advice and feedback to design a product that meets customer expectations. The manufacturing teams require insights and measurements that enable stable and capable processes. The procurement teams require knowledge, guidance, and assistance when selecting vendors that will provide or improve the supply of valuable materials.
The Q & R engineer’s primary role can often be design or manufacturing-centric, often being associated with the performance of statistical analysis and conduction of environmental stress testing and qualifications. When the focus turns to the product goals for performance in the hands of customers, then the scope of Q & R engineers spans the organization.
A reliability engineer may begin with the creation of reliability predictions for a new product design. This is not the only task expected though. An organization requires a reliability prediction to make decisions, inform customers, and plan production, yet the organization also needs to know what will fail and when it is likely to fail in greater detail to avoid or mitigate those risks.
Q & R engineers are in the business of identifying and resolving product performance risks. This can be accomplished once field failures occur or during the early design process. The most successful engineers tend to be proactive and work to avoid field failures.
Teach a man to fish
Another essential role played by the Q & R engineer involves teaching, coaching, or mentoring members of the rest of the organization to involves consider the impact of their decisions on product Q & R performance.
Transferring the unique education and experience of the Q & R engineer to design, manufacturing, procurement, and other disciplines will greatly expand the effectiveness of a single Q & R engineer. The ability of others to identify risk, consider Q & R fully during tradeoff decision-making, and become aware of Q & R goals and progress permits the Q & R engineer to effectively influence an entire organization.
The real test of the effectiveness of an individual Q & R engineer takes place when that engineer leaves the organization. If the product’s Q & R performance declines, we may conclude that the organization did not adopt and incorporate the breadth of reliability practices. If, however, the Q & R performance remains stable or continues to improve, the organization successfully created sustaining business processes coupled with sufficient reliability engineering knowledge to continue developing reliable products.
Procurement Engineers and Managers
Procurement entails working with suppliers to obtain a supply of components or materials that meet the design requirements. The procurement team comprises engineers, managers, and support staff. One of its primary goals is to minimize cost. Often this means procuring the lowest price for a component that meets the design requirements.
The reliability role for procurement professionals is to obtain the best price for a component that meets or exceeds the reliability requirements. They should know the specific goal, including the probability of success, duration, local environment, and use, along with the design specifications. The conversations with suppliers should include conveying the reliability requirements along with learning about potential failure mechanisms.
Unfortunately, the focus on price often outweighs the perceived value of focusing on component reliability. Rather than building a working relationship with suppliers to quickly solve field issues, the focus should be on preventing design and component selection errors. Adding the cost of failure to the price equation often resets the procurement focus to include finding the most reliable components.
Marketing and Sales Staff
The primary role of the marketing and sales teams is to create demand and book sales, but they also act as both consumers and providers of reliability information.
First, these teams should understand and convey accurate information about the product’s reliability performance.
Second, these teams should understand and convey accurate information about customer expectations and requirements to the rest of the organization.
Warranty accruals and expenses often reside solely in the domain of finance. An understanding of basic reliability principles and prediction information can dramatically increase the accuracy of the accruals.
In one organization the product development teams created detailed and accurate models of future field failures and sent the finance team Weibull cumulative distribution plots covering the expected product lifetime. Because the finance team did not know how to read these plots, they arbitrarily selected the midpoint from each graph for use in warranty accrual estimates.
With just a little training and understanding the accrual accuracy increased 100 fold, thereby saving the organization from major swings in warranty expense accounting.
Manufacturing can only make a product’s Q & R worse. It is impossible to create a product as good as the design intent owing to material, assembly, and environmental variation. Therefore, the role of the manufacturing team is to minimize variation that adversely impacts field reliability.
Understanding the critical Q & R elements of design enables the manufacturing team to focus on monitoring and controlling elements that have a high impact on Q & R performance. The common focus on production yield is often related to field Q & R performance when the production testing includes the ability to detect latent defects or significant adverse changes to the expected product durability.
The selections above are only a subset of the entire organization. The examples illustrate the importance of reliability across an organization. Other areas including are equally important.
Everything from concept to production to marketing to obsolescence involves product reliability. The organization’s brand image, profitability, and customer satisfaction are all related to product and process reliability.
Reliability connects nearly every part of the organization.
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