Information technology has armed today's customers with extensive information on vendors and ready access to competitive products. These sophisticated customers can assess and compare more than the initial price of a product when determining the cost of ownership. By tracking costs associated with failure rates, return or repair expenses, downtime and other problem areas, this new breed of customer appreciates and demands an emphasis on product quality. These days it comes as no surprise when a customer that tracks product issues throughout its supply chain eliminates a manufacturer with low prices from its vendor list due to poor quality ratings.
Fortunately, these same information technologies that produce such quality-sensitive customers provide manufacturers with quality management and process automation tools capable of ensuring that high standards of product quality are achieved and maintained. The only way for manufacturers to keep pace with customers' ever-more stringent quality demands is to harness this technology of quality assurance. But these quality systems will only succeed if integrated with existing manufacturing management systems. The secret to successful manufacturing is to implement quality management systems that not only satisfy customer demands but also can operate enterprisewide in conjunction with current standards and requirements of legacy enterprise management systems.
The shortcomings of current quality systems
By introducing manufacturing resource planning and enterprise resource planning applications, companies have already integrated into one system most elements of the modern corporate and manufacturing process, including production, engineering, marketing, sales, human resources and accounting. Supply chain management systems apply similar principles of planning and tracking to vendor products in the supply chain. These MRP, ERP and SCM systems have been highly successful in consolidating crucial business and manufacturing information. Unfortunately, these enterprise management systems also have mostly failed to address the need to integrate solid quality management principles. This failing is attributable to both the complex nature of quality requirements and the reality that, for most of this century, quality control mechanisms have been regarded as extras by the manufacturing sector.
Quality managers have long been utilizing quality control systems, including statistical process control, production part approval process, failure mode effects analysis, gage calibration and document control. But these systems traditionally have been stand-alone applications. Although these individual applications have been touted as complete quality management systems, they cannot meet all quality objectives for data collection and information sharing required for today's complex manufacturing processes. The main shortcoming of these quality control systems has been their inability to provide effective links to integrate with enterprise management systems.
The advent of enterprisewide quality management systems
Thanks to recent advances in information technologies and system design, a new breed of quality management software has been developed with the ability to integrate quality software applications with business automation systems. With open architecture and object-oriented technology as the bedrock of these new systems, unified quality management can be achieved by linking system components to the enterprise management system. The components are connected through a standard interface framework, such as COM/DCOM or CORBA, that enables disparate applications to seamlessly exchange information. As an example, utilizing the standard interface protocols of the OLE for Process Control specification, quality management systems can automate the linkage of quality information with other business and manufacturing systems.
Companies now can select the MRP, ERP and SCM systems and quality management applications that best meet their needs, integrating them into one enterprisewide management solution. By linking the "best of breed" SPC, document control and other quality management components into the enterprise system via a standard interface framework, companies can create an enterprisewide quality management system that combines comprehensive quality management functionality with business and manufacturing processes.
Integrating the quality management system with the MRP/ERP/SCM system can significantly affect profitability. Such integration minimizes the time and labor associated with data entry by propagating information entered into one component throughout the enterprise system. Where stand-alone quality systems result in large caches of data that are inaccessible to other systems or must be manually transferred, an integrated quality management system provides online access and automatic cross-referencing of data stored within each system component. And by linking this data into automated reporting systems, management can make decisions based on the full body of corporate information.
An enterprisewide quality management system also provides business planning systems with real-time access to production and quality inspection data that can be immediately used to determine material and product disposition. In short, integration turns quality data into accessible information that can be delivered to management in a timely manner, permitting informed decisions on critical processes that define a company's success.
Identifying quality management systems that work
Selecting the components to create an enterprisewide quality management system must be performed with care because the integration of a powerful MRP/ERP/SCM system with a marginal quality management solution will fail to produce the expected synergistic results. An improper match may actually work to decrease the operation's efficiency and profitability. The selected quality systems must not only provide the basic functionality of quality control but must also have the appropriate architecture to interoperate with the extant corporate enterprise system.
To select wisely, a company must examine a series of factors before deciding on a particular quality management system. The following questions provide some of the criteria that should be used in determining which application best meets the business's quality management and integration requirements:
Does the application integrate with existing business management applications and, if so, in what manner and at what expense?
Does the application provide a high degree of flexibility and scalability?
Is the application complex enough to efficiently handle all present and projected future needs, yet user-friendly enough to find wide user acceptance?
Can the application be implemented quickly and easily?
Does the application support multilo-cation and multisite administration?
Is the application consistent with current technology? Does it support advanced security, multiple database engines, client/server functionality and open systems architecture?
Are regular updates and upgrades available?
Does the application require custom-ization to meet functional requirements?
A high level of quality
Customer expectations of quality continue to increase. Historically, quality requirements were dictated by general standards. The movement now is toward tighter, industry-specific requirements, with many customers demanding quality standards far exceeding previously accepted testing procedures. The current drive for six sigma quality is an example of the exceptionally high level of quality being demanded today.
The only way that manufacturing companies will survive and prosper in such an atmosphere of customer-driven demand for quality is to invest in the technologies necessary to produce the highest quality products. Manufacturing companies must utilize software systems that not only meet quality control objectives but also manage quality data in a manner consistent with the enterprise systems controlling the business and manufacturing processes. Those companies that integrate their quality management system with the existing enterprise management systems will lead the pack both in product quality and in harnessing the information needed to continuously improve manufacturing processes.
About the authors
Ned Greenberg is vice president of DataNet Quality Systems. He may be reached at email@example.com . Leonard Hemphill is creative director at Pilgrim Software Inc. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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