We see it in the news frequently; a battery explodes, car brakes malfunction, electronic systems are hacked, a material inexplicably fails. Field failures are costly and unforgiving, necessitating safety recalls as photos and videos rapidly circulate in the media. Each failure puts companies, big or small, on the line to resolve the cause of failure while simultaneously making things right with their consumers. Fast.
Quality is a critical component of any product, and sometimes we learn that the hard way. Companies adjust after a failure with actions like adding testing, changing suppliers, implementing safety checks. These additions would have been costly even in the beginning of design, but are even more expensive after a field failure when they are now essential to continue making and selling a product.
There are two different types of quality—good and bad. As a designer, it’s critical that both types of quality be considered to calculate the true cost of designing and manufacturing your product.
The Cost of Good Quality
Good quality is preventative; these actions use resources up front in the design and manufacturing processes, but the return on your investment is significant. Good quality helps to avoid field failures, mitigate risk, and bring a solid product to market the first time.
Plan for Quality
By selecting appropriate, high-quality materials, designers can plan for their products to be capable of performing tasks safely and consistently. It’s also wise to build redundancy into designs for especially critical functions.
Vet Your Suppliers
It is critical for designers to be involved with suppliers and be aware of their testing and quality practices. Frequently the root cause of major field failures is found to be with a supplier responsible for a smaller piece of a final product.
Utilize Quality Programs and Audits
Hiring professionals who specialize in quality, conducting third-party audits, and participating in professional quality organizations enable companies to proactively manage their quality practices.
Perform Accurate Testing
Investing in sophisticated testing with the right tools achieves statistically significant results, and builds confidence in the quality of the product. Testing isn’t just for physical prototypes either. There are eCAD tools on the market that are capable of detecting product failures through digital models and can help prevent future failures at a fraction of the cost. The massive presence of technology within products increases the risk of failures for every industry; thorough testing is a necessity for quality, regardless of the product type.
Every product may not demand all of these actions, and some may feel like overkill if you’re confident in your design and your process. Preventative quality measures take time and resources as you try to get your product to market, which is a trade decision that every designer has to make.
The Cost of Bad Quality
Now consider a potentially bigger problem--what is the cost of bad quality?
Internal failures add time and cost to your production, requiring additional testing and rework. A failure discovered during the final stages of design can be extremely frustrating, but an even bigger issue is when your product fails in the field. The cost of field failures can include:
Warranty Charges and Recalls
Field failures demand replacement parts, repair, or total replacement of the product. Depending on the product, this may include a safety recall, press releases to the market, software patches, etc. The United States Consumer Product Safety Commission reports over 16 recalls in April 2018 to date, with great variety in severity of failure. Recalls spanned industries including housewares, safety equipment, toys, recreational vehicles and tools.
Complaints and Loyalty
Field failures make for some very unhappy customers,leading to sales reductions, both immediate and future. While appropriate responses may mitigate this risk to some extent, the public nature of both product reviews and safety recalls assures that any misstep in handling a failure will likely be widely advertised. Some customers will stick with you if you serve them well, but you’ll never know the business you’ve lost in the future due to a field failure.
Your profits are now being used for damage control; fielding responses to unhappy customers, shipping replacements, or processing refunds, instead of marketing your product. This hurts your bottom line and your future profits are now dependent on your customer service representatives’ ability to serve your customers well.
Some of the costs of field failures are fairly subjective; that makes them even more critical to avoid. Every industry and product is subject to quality standards, whether they are mandated by law or only manifest themselves through consumer expectations.
Building Quality into Design
The engineering community is continually working to improve quality initiatives, recognizing that the somewhat nebulous cost of field failures is about more than just money. Programs like Six Sigma incorporate defect costs in savings calculations, and Lean Manufacturing methods focus on reducing the Cost of Appraisal so that the costs of checking for defects internally are accounted for. Both of these are examples of trying to consider the true cost of quality—both good and bad—so that perceived savings during design and production don’t turn into a bigger loss in the field.
Regardless of their industry or product, every designer has the choice to pay for quality processes now, or pay for failure resolution later. While quality assurance isn’t free, the prevention of field failures is undoubtedly a sound investment in both your product and your reputation among consumers.