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David Isaacson


Quality 4.0: The Evolution of Quality Management in a Digital Era

Infusing traditional systems with new technologies

Published: Thursday, January 30, 2020 - 13:03

During the last decade, product quality has become increasingly important to consumers. In fact, a recent B2C study found that consumers rank quality as the most important component in making a purchase, rather than price. This change in focus can be attributed to several factors but is paced by leading brands that set a high bar for exceptional product experiences which drive customer preference. Take Herschel, for example, which prominently prints the word “quality” on everything it produces—a bold brand promise that is meaningful to consumers.

Also affecting consumer perception is the seemingly endless headlines about life-threatening recalls, such as the recent Subaru second recall of nearly half a million vehicles due to exploding airbags. These deficiencies instill fear into consumers, further convincing them to pay attention to both quality and safety in the products they buy. As a result of these consumer perceptions, brands must become quality-first organizations, making quality a key focus at every step of the product life cycle. Otherwise, they put brand reputation, market position, revenue—or worse, consumer safety—at risk.

Unfortunately, mastering quality management can be extremely challenging without the right processes, people, or tools in place. Companies must be able to monitor quality at every step of the supply chain, as issues can appear anywhere throughout the manufacturing process, from design and production to shipping, handling, and distribution. Some brands count hundreds of thousands of suppliers in their network, making it even more difficult to have consistent visibility across the board. Nestle, for example, works with 165,000 direct suppliers and 695,000 farmers.

Many companies have been attempting to overcome quality hurdles with manual processes for years, but these outdated methods allow problems to slip through the cracks unnoticed until discovered by customers. To meet increasing demands, brands must embrace new technologies that can both help automate quality management throughout the entire supply chain, as well as inform business processes more accurately and consistently than ever before. Enter Quality 4.0.

Defining Quality 4.0

A Boston Consulting Group (BCG) report defines Quality 4.0 as the application of Industry 4.0’s digital technologies, like cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and the industrial internet of things (IIoT), to quality management. It involves infusing traditional systems with new technologies for managing quality, like quality management system (QMS) solutions, to improve overall business performance by offering users real-time process monitoring, data collection, and predictive analytics.

Despite the promise of Quality 4.0—BCG survey participants acknowledge the significant importance of Quality 4.0 (see Exhibit 1)—only 16 percent have actually started implementation, due to a lack of preparedness. This trend sheds light on the fact that while new technologies are clearly important for leveraging the digital era, companies must first develop a strong, foundational quality management strategy and culture to achieve success.

Image source: Boston Consulting Group

Establishing the foundation for Quality 4.0

Companies looking to improve their quality management processes must first define why they care about quality. Then, they can uncover their unique obstacles for delivering quality services or products. These challenges might include siloed processes, insufficient documentation, improperly trained employees, and a minimal amount of corrective action coordination and visibility. During this phase of launching better-defined quality tactics, companies should set measurable outcomes for the overall program’s success.

Next, businesses should aim to overcome their newly defined challenges by incorporating highly intuitive and comprehensive QMS solutions into their processes. These solutions can consistently generate and automate quality, compliance, and environmental health and safety processes. The best QMS tools will be flexible enough to adapt quickly to different types of processes, meet unique business needs, and remain agile in the face of changing business environments. With these solutions, companies can assess risks, minimize defects, and resolve delays throughout the production process and can begin considering new technologies.

It’s important to keep in mind that quality management program success relies heavily on people, too. Even before the necessary solutions are in place, companies should build a culture of quality that ensures every employee understands the importance of their role in upholding excellence, while enabling them to effortlessly maintain it. User-friendly, automated QMS systems can help companies achieve this goal by enabling them to devise and execute more agile, flexible, and robust quality management strategies that engage everyone, from executive decision makers to the workforce on the manufacturing floor.

Developing a mature quality program with Quality 4.0

After establishing the basics of a successful quality program, companies can integrate Quality 4.0 technologies and have further insights into their complete product life cycle and supply-chain ecosystem to consistently uphold and exceed quality standards. The exact technologies that companies integrate with QMS tools will vary depending on the unique goals they set during the early stages of the quality program’s development. For example, a food and beverage brand might want more accurate insights into the temperature of dairy products to ensure they remain between 34–38°F throughout the manufacturing process. To accomplish that goal, the manufacturer might install IoT devices throughout the assembly line to automatically send data to a QMS platform. These data would instantly inform the quality managers when and where that temperature was not maintained, allowing them to take appropriate actions to adjust the production line.

Implementing Quality 4.0 better enables companies to meet their determined goals and establish themselves as quality leaders. They should be able to fully leverage the new insights from their data to see real, measurable quality results, and identify opportunities to continuously improve their quality management processes.

The journey to superior quality standards and processes will be constantly changing as consumer perceptions evolve and new technologies emerge. However, for quality-focused companies, the benefits of Quality 4.0 are imminently possible, as long as a true commitment to quality is established and there is buy-in across the organization. By investing in the right technologies and investing in employees to enhance quality management processes, manufacturers can create a culture that ensures every person is dedicated to driving successful outputs.


About The Author

David Isaacson’s picture

David Isaacson

David Isaacson is the Senior Director of Product Marketing at ETQ. Isaacson focusses on developing market strategies and product positioning for cloud-based solutions.