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Jerry Foster


Quality As a Competitive Edge: Four Parts to Quality Management in Manufacturing

Is PDCA still relevant in 2021?

Published: Wednesday, July 28, 2021 - 12:03

Manufacturers are acutely aware that audits and recalls are just part of business. At the same time, they all agree that the best way to deal with recalls is to prevent them in the first place. Because today’s manufacturers operate on razor-thin margins with little room for error, a reactionary approach to quality management is a massive Achilles’s heel.

In May 2021, Ford Motor Co. had to recall 661,000 Explorer SUVs due to quality issues related to roof covers detaching. This significant recall could cost Ford tens of millions of dollars. Recalls of this nature in manufacturing are far from rare, and events occur across every sector. Whether considered collectively or privately, the market impacts are staggering.

On the surface, it may seem simple: If quality is built into production, quality products will emerge from production. However, products and processes are becoming more complex, and efforts to reduce cost and increase transparency only compound the challenges to sustaining high quality levels.

Preventive measures to ward off recalls may seem cumbersome and excessive, but such efforts are obviously necessary. Preparation and strategic investments in quality management processes and technology are what set forward-thinking manufacturers apart from the pack. Quality-driven leaders prioritize technology that provides full visibility and traceability so that recalls are no longer something lying in wait.

The process of transforming manufacturing operations to prioritize quality management is not a set-and-forget function but instead must be a continuous improvement cycle. So how can manufacturers make digital quality management a key accelerator and differentiator? The answer is fourfold.

The planning part

Paper-based processes are unscalable and overly cumbersome to manage. They’re also plagued with human error and foster a dangerous lack of visibility for stakeholders. When it comes to quality management, manufacturers must start with planning. A good plan is foundational to success and ensures that all stakeholders know what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. When it comes to manufacturing quality, this includes implementing the systems that allow for agility and alignment across all stakeholders.

Planning to prioritize quality management allows manufacturers to keep pace with their competition and in many cases pass them. Failure to plan will likely result in an inability to meet and maintain market demand.

In the supply chain, for example, let’s say a buyer has an option between two vendors:
• Vendor A uses the proper systems to ensure production part approval processes (PPAPs) are well documented and electronically shared with suppliers to provide real-time access to data and changes
• Vendor B operates in a more analog, manual environment

Naturally, the more agile and reliable manufacturer is chosen.

The best way to control, measure, and ensure that quality standards are in place is by implementing the technologies to aggregate all data, current and historical, into a centralized and digital location for real-time accessibility.

When companies transition from purely analog environments to strategic digital tools—known as smart manufacturing—repeatability, predictability, and stability in the production process are the natural results.

The doing part

Manufacturing is active. The production process can be tedious and hard to maintain at scale. While physical production is taking place, digital safeguards allow for a more accurate and agile quality management process.

To maintain the highest possible quality management standards, manufacturers must keep a finger on the metaphorical pulse of the plant floor. This includes inspecting and documenting quality at every step to ensure products meet requirements throughout the manufacturing process.

Manufacturers who are able to automate quality gain a major competitive edge. From avoiding both the calculable loss of revenue due to recalled inventory to the less-calculable hit caused by poor brand reputation, manufacturers that standardize quality have the advantage. What companies should realize is that they’re paying for quality one way or another—either by investing in quality early, or paying later to recoup losses.

Digitally managing quality from a single, central data repository makes it possible for manufacturers to sustain and maintain quality processes consistently, while tracing each step along the way. For example, manufacturers must institute digital control plans to track, measure, and analyze quality control processes. Planning ahead and prioritizing transparency ensures approval processes are well-documented and digitally shared with all necessary stakeholders to detect failures early.

The checking part

Quality management doesn’t stop with ensuring parts and products meet a manufacturer’s standards alone. Industry standards for products (from food, to cars, to chips and semiconductors, to exercise equipment and beyond) are constantly evolving to ensure safety for consumers.

Beyond avoiding fines, companies that prioritize the highest possible safety and product standards gain a major competitive differentiator. Compliance audits are not merely boxes to tick. Failing to keep up with industry standards and compliance can knock a manufacturer out of the competitive landscape, even forcing a company out of business. Making quality management inherent to your workflows and processes reduces quality loss and risk of warranty issues or recalls, improving your brand reputation and customer relationships.

The acting part

One of the most vital elements of manufacturing is repeatability. As previously mentioned, transforming manufacturing operations is a continuous cycle rather than a linear process with defined steps. Manufacturers need to be agile and adjust for quality control in real time.

When the proper digital system of record, with quality at its core, is implemented, then manufacturers gain control over all of their processes. First, they can implement consistent and repeatable processes while constantly measuring for continuous improvement. Second, all information is housed centrally, which makes audit preparation either nonexistent or a matter of hours vs. the days and weeks often required. And finally, ensuring and constantly measuring quality enables reduction in waste, faster customer fulfillment, and a lower risk of recalls.

If manufacturers are using manual processes for managing quality, taking an active quality stance is difficult. To be agile and adjust in real time requires full visibility across the enterprise. Manual tracking is not only tedious but also is only as accurate as the last time something was documented and is never truly real time. This causes people and companies to act on old data, often after bad parts or unnecessary waste has occurred. This adds cost and customer delays, and contributes to a poor overall reputation.

For example, G&W Products, a manufacturer whose customers span the military, heavy truck, electrical equipment, and mining industries, moved away from Excel-driven manual processes when it came to managing production and quality. They found that they were spending too much time analyzing old data, making it difficult to make real-time decisions and be truly agile.

Once the G&W team moved to a modern quality solution, they created new processes that put quality management at the top of everyone’s minds. If shop-floor workers encounter even one part that is of uncertain quality, they halt production and discuss the issue with the company’s material review board group, who then document the issue. This revamped process has enabled the company to improve its overall quality.

The ability to measure and correct quality issues in-line is key. By leveraging strategic technologies to identify additional gaps in quality efficiency, manufacturers are able to adjust in real time and course-correct for future production. For this part especially, manufacturers shackled by paper-based processes to manage quality are at a massive competitive disadvantage. As more manufacturers adopt smart manufacturing technologies and streamline their quality management process and strategy, those that fail to innovate will not be able to keep up.

Quality management must be baked into a manufacturer’s DNA because implementing a strategic and cyclical process—and the technologies to support the process—will allow manufacturers to mitigate quality crises before they arise. Manually maintaining documents that are critical for quality operations inevitably leads to quality control complications.

Digital quality management fueled by real-time data and insights is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s a competitive must-have. A manufacturer’s ability to be agile squarely rests in its digital plan-do-check-act process.


About The Author

Jerry Foster’s picture

Jerry Foster

With a  degree in Computer Science at Liberty University, Jerry Foster is CTO of Plex and leads the company's technology strategy, along with research and design initiatives focused on next-generation cloud solutions for the manufacturing enterprise. A founding member of the Plex team, Foster has been instrumental in the entire evolution of Plex, overseeing the technical transitions in each phase of our growth.