Many electronic products are developed and manufactured without confirming that they don’t contain unreliable components. There are many reasons why a manufacturer rushes to get a product into production, such as to outpace copycats, sheer excitement, or their supplier pushing them (perhaps for their own selfish reasons so they can get paid faster), but if that happens, you could be suffering from a classic case of ‘garbage in, garbage out’ because you have no idea if the makeup of your product will ensure its reliability over a reasonable amount of time, such as during its warranty period at least.
Here’s what to do in this situation…
Why product reliability is crucial
We’ve all been there when our new electronic device failed not long after we purchased it…that’s not a good place to be for manufacturers.
Product quality often gets the limelight and manufacturers don’t want defective products hitting the shelves, for sure. But reliability is actually equally as important for most products, especially electronics.
According to ASQ, reliability is:
The probability of a product performing its intended function under stated conditions without failure for a given period of time.
So consumers want a product to be of a high enough quality that it looks and works as expected, but they also require it to work as expected now and for years in the future. For example, you purchase a new automobile expecting it to last for a decade or more. In fact, some automakers like KIA offer a 7-year manufacturer’s warranty which shows the level of reliability that a consumer expects here. Same for the Apple iPhone, most consumers expect these smartphones to last for 4 or 5 years and Apple’s extended warranty provides at least 3 years of coverage reflecting on how long they may think it should last at least.
What if a product is not reliable?
Unlike quality issues which should be almost immediately evident, hopefully before the products have finished production or been shipped if you’re performing quality inspections at the factory, reliability issues will rear their heads later on once the product has been sold and is in use by the consumer.
In a way that’s possibly even more damaging for your business because you have products in the field that need to be dealt with and angry customers who might leave poor reviews or at least shop elsewhere in future. The worst case scenario is that you will have to recall products from sale…this is incredibly costly as they have been manufactured and shipped (which you have no doubt already paid for) and then you have the cost of pulling them from shelves and correcting them after that, too.
As our head of NPD Andrew wrote in this blog post about the reasons for a high product return rate:
Poor reliability products are a leading reason for product returns. Initially, a product may be fine, meaning that out of the box it looks and functions perfectly. However, shortly afterwards, maybe within two or three months and still within the warranty period, it breaks down or doesn’t function to specification. Quality issues are usually found a lot faster and may be more clearly visible, whereas reliability issues tend to manifest themselves after the product has been used for a while.
What you’ll start seeing
If we go back to the start of the post, a manufacturer has developed and manufactured their device without confirming if it includes unreliable components. If unreliable products like this hit the stores you can expect a high rate of returns and bad reviews from customers because they stop working too soon. It may be that the problems are caused by one or two of the components that fail early, but confirming the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ needs structured testing and analysis.
How do we deal with product returns?
If you do end up with unreliable products being returned this is an unwelcome position to be in, however, you can still use it to your advantage by learning what caused the devices to fail which then allows you to fix the problem.
We need to find out what is failing and why, and we wrote a 6-step process for dealing with returned products in this earlier post:
Triage typically means the categorization of all the returns. In the triage process we follow some steps:
- This is just a visual check on the product that takes note of the way you received it. Was the box torn or intact, was the product itself intact and not broken, are there any missing parts or adapters, etc?
- Perform a functional test. Assuming the product was intact, the box is intact, and everything seems visually fine, you then plug in the product and do a functional test (for electronics). You’re checking whether it’s powering up or not, if the functionality is correct according to its specification, and, if there is an issue, checking what it seems to be. An example would be a battery-powered vacuum cleaner that doesn’t power up. You might notice that an LED is blinking saying that the battery is low, and after plugging it in you see that the battery is not charging. That’s a charging issue, therefore you need to categorize it.
- Categorize the return into the correct bin. In the example of the vacuum cleaner, you could say it’s a design issue and place the item in the ‘design bin’ for R&D to examine, or you may categorize it as a ‘component or supplier issue’ which could also be right if a battery is not working correctly. You need to make the call depending on how you’ve decided to categorize returns during triage. A small deformity on the plastic housing, paint that smears in contact with water, etc, would probably belong to the ‘manufacturing’ category. Finally, if the item passes the visual and functional check, it can be categorized as ‘No Problem Found (NPF)’ and placed in that bin instead. The correct teams will then examine the returns associated with their departments to find out why the issues occur.
2. Establish a sustainability team
Following triage, we’ve categorized product returns based on the issues they seem to have. To attack these issues we establish a ‘sustainability team’ that includes a member from design, manufacturing, quality, reliability, and any other member with relevant skills or experience for this type of product. There will also be a manager to coordinate their meetings, take notes, and assign actions. There will commonly be one team per type of issue (Design, component & supplier, manufacturing, raw materials, and NTF).
The team then works to troubleshoot the issues found with the aim of fixing them in the product so they don’t occur again in future, hence the different disciplines in the team as the design team might need to adjust the product design based on suggestions from reliability and manufacturing, for example.
3. Cross-functional contribution to sustainable engineering
When the design engineer or design team receives the triaged returned units they need to go through a whole checklist to determine what the root cause of each failure is and also determine whether or not this has been a consistently bad design that is happening from the old version of the product to the new version, or if it’s a new issue that they have never seen in the design.
Ultimately they aim to come up with a good solution that fixes the problem once and for all.
4. Update the lessons learned database
The solution put in place will also be documented in a database called the ‘lessons learned database’ for future reference. This means that the process is controlled and documented and if future returns come in, the sustainability team can check the database to see if the issues are related to the previous fix or if they’re something new again.
5. Manufacture a new-build product with the fixes
In the case of the product that breaks when dropped onto a vinyl floor from table height, your reliability engineer will have a discussion with the design team about why based on the industry and what our competitors offer, this fault is not acceptable. So we must make our product more durable. The new design is made, developed, and rolled out to production following the regular NPI process. There is going to be a cost of making the product better, but the cost of the return and of losing customers, as well as damage to the brand, will be much higher if we don’t fix it.
6. Monitor the field return rate of the new-build product
The issues have been fixed, a new version of the product was developed and launched, and now it’s on sale.
The final step is to monitor your field return rate and find out whether or not you’re seeing those same issues again or not. If you are seeing it again there are some serious issues that need to be dealt with, but if you’ve done a good job and the product design was not the main problem then most likely you will not see those issues anymore.
This process will help you find and fix the problems and prevent them from recurring.
How do we contain the problem?
Once you’re aware of a reliability issue with your product, and this will be as soon as you have triaged the returned units if not earlier, you need to stop production immediately until the reliability issues can be ironed out of the product.
Then, at the same time, these corrective actions are required to find and fix the problem:
- Perform reliability testing on the products – these tests may include HALT & HASS testing for product life testing, environmental tests, vibration and drop testing, and more. The goal will be to test the limits of the product and/or components and find which ones are failing. HASS testing may be particularly helpful in the case of products that are already on the market as this focuses on testing them by inflicting realistic stressors on them that mimic real-life usage, therefore the cause of the problems being found in the field should be found in this way.
- Once the faulty and unreliable components have been identified, new ones must be sourced, tested, and validated (which probably didn’t happen in the first place, hence your problems) as being more durable and of higher quality than the previous ones.
Only then is it safe to restart production of the now-fixed product again, otherwise, this never-ending cycle of reliability issues will continue forever! Also, remember point 6 above, monitoring the products after production has restarted is important to assess whether the same problems are still happening or if they have now been solved.
How to avoid unreliable components from being used in future?
Here’s how to prevent unreliable components from making it into production in future:
- Have a reliability testing plan in place and follow it.
- Understand who your components suppliers are – if your supplier will not give you this information it’s not a healthy relationship and you do not have control over your supply chain which may well lead to issues like this occurring again (because you will not know what is going into your product).
- Freeze the BOM as soon as production starts and do not make any changes unless there is a serious emergency.
- Don’t put all of your eggs in one component supplier’s basket – source several suppliers to have some reserve options and test and approve samples of the components so you know that they all reach your expectations.
- Diligently check every shipment of components to assure that they are from approved suppliers and are as expected.
- If outsourcing production to a manufacturer, audit and inspect them regularly as this will stop them from cutting corners and let them know that you are taking a keen interest in what they are doing.
Your takeaway here should be that reliability testing is not a step you should skip. You may learn the hard way that leaving component sourcing to your supplier is a costly error, as you will need to pay for:
- Return costs or even a product recall
- Rework on returned products
- Reliability testing costs
- More product inspections
- Loss of business
- Damaged reputation
- Fines and legal costs (possible if a product is deemed non-compliant and dangerous by authorities)
Reliability testing can help you avoid all of these issues…so think twice before skipping this important step and rushing into mass production before assessing if your components are reliable!
Read and listen to more content about product reliability
You may also like the following:
- How Can Poor Quality & Reliability Products Affect Your Business? [Podcast]
- How Reliability Testing Is Critical To Obtaining Great Mass-Produced Products
- How To Do Product Reliability Testing?
- Why Product Reliability Testing Is A MUST During Product Design [Podcast]
- When and Why a Product Failure Analysis is Required [Podcast]
- How to Reduce Your Product Return Rate? [Podcast]
- One Thing You Need To Do BEFORE You Start Mass Production! [Podcast]
- Limitations Of Common Reliability And Safety Testing Standards
- Do You Need a Customized Reliability Test Plan?
- How Many Product Samples Do We Really Need To Test For Reliability And Compliance?
Do you have a product that has failed in the field and you need help to find and fix the issues in the way outlined in this post? Sofeast’s engineers can do this for you – take a look at the solution we offer right here: Product Failure Analysis (on Reliability and/or Safety Issues)