Reducing raw material costs, or investigating ways to scale up component manufacturing processes, are two classic approaches manufacturers focus on to drive down the cost of goods. In addition, there are other areas to consider for improving quality or reducing cost for established products through examination of their standard operating procedures. This is where we will focus during this discussion.
Frequently, long-standing procedures for producing mature products are ignored—until a quality issue arises. It is understandable that the time allocated to legacy products is limited to monitoring the yield and responding to pass/fail results. In that manner product support personnel can focus on the successful transition of new products into their work cell. However, an organization may be missing a significant opportunity to improve quality, increase yield, or avoid glitches in their supply chain by not employing the following suggestion: a periodic review of a process.
It is recommended that a periodic review of an established process be conducted by a subject matter expert (SME), or by a new member of the design team in collaboration with a product/process veteran.
Subject Matter Expert Review
An organization may have the good fortune of retaining an original member from a product design group. If so, an advantage that an original developer may bring to a critical review of current practices is the ability to detect process creep.
Process creep is a series of small changes within a process or work instruction that eventually leads to significant changes to the original design.
Many well-intentioned product stewards have been known to do whatever possible to keep a product on market and within specifications. The advantage that an original developer has when reviewing trends in product performance is recognizing the design intent for specific features, and the bounds by which those features were tested. A couple of examples would be:
- An instrument recommended for use in the analysis of a product may be completely ineffective in the range in which the process is now requiring that measurements be taken.
- Work instructions may not have been as descriptive as necessary while specifying required process equipment. Seemingly minor equipment changes can have a significant impact on product performance.
Sometimes only an original developer can identify the root cause of a problem, and that realization could lead to the development of improved documentation and training.
New Eyes on the Process
An excellent approach to familiarize a new team member with a company’s technology is to conduct a collaborative review in coordination with a veteran product developer. Employees added to the company after a product launch, or those that were not involved in the development of the product under review, are able to bring a “new set of eyes” to a review. Two advantages this type of reviewer can provide are:
- Many questions regarding the original design will be asked.
- A unique perspective with regard to technological advancements may be realized.
First, an employee who is new to an organization, and who has been tasked with reviewing the performance and design of an on-market product, will inevitably pose many questions to production personnel. This reviewer will want to know the reasons why specific techniques for development or assembly were chosen, why a particular vendor was selected for a key raw material, and whether the tolerances established for final test specifications were chosen correctly. The effort to answer these questions will either reinforce, or create further inquiry into, the decisions that were made. The end result is that a thorough discussion will have been held, and much education will have been accomplished.
The second benefit of using a new pair of eyes to look at an established process is that design approaches not considered for the original development may be discussed. These alternative ways of approaching a product solution may represent new technology unavailable at the time of first concept. More than likely, process changes would not be implemented for a product on market; however, this discussion could be invaluable at the time of designing a revision of the product for future sale.
In conclusion, it is highly recommended that an on-market product undergoes a periodic reassessment of its assembly instructions and the training documents used for manufacturing technicians, along with a critical observation of the processes used to assemble the product. The potential for cost savings, improvements to quality, and future enhancements are more likely to be achieved.
The above article was authored by John Hicks, an associate with IOI Partners with over 20 years of experience (at Seradyn, Beckman Coulter and Thermo Fisher Scientific) in product development and product management with most of his efforts focused on project management, experimental design and market research associated with new product development and existing product process optimization.