Quality vs. Quantity

In an unrealistically perfect world, I like to think that global manufacturing would be able to find the appropriate proportion of quality and quantity. In this realistically imperfect world, it’s much more common to find manufacturing facilities focusing upon turning out high quantities of products while placing quality as only a secondary factor. So many places are concerned with nothing more than pushing out large amounts of product to get that product on store shelves. The checks and balance of quality control fall by the wayside and the consumers are left with an empty wallet and inferior product. Don’t forget that somebody, somewhere, working at a call center acting as a representative of the company takes the heat for the lack of quality control. At the end of the day, the people building the product are not the same people who have to represent it nor support it, therefore there is a huge disconnect of personal accountability when their sloppy work is realized through defective merchandise.

Obviously, every manufacturer wants to be profitable. There’s no profit in unassembled goods stored in warehouses collecting dust. You must take the raw materials and form it into some sort of product that consumers want to purchase. The manufacturer aims to buy those raw materials as cheaply as possible, this way they are able to maintain a higher profit margin when the final product is sold. We also must not forget about the force of employees who work together to build products, their salaries, marketing, and all other associated overhead that comes with the manufacturing process. But we must also recognize the actual cost of quality rather than the cost of labor, cost of raw materials can be far greater.

If you are not familiar with the term “cost of quality”, I’ll break it down. The cost of quality is not the price associated with creating a quality product. Rather, it’s the cost of failing to create a quality product. For example, if a production team produces 100 piece and 20 of them require additional work to make them complete, the costs involved in the reworking/repair/retooling/retesting all add up to represent the cost of quality. In other words, the cost of quality is the cost that would not have been incurred if quality were perfect. Don’t forget warranty coverage. This too must be accounted for. If the manufacturer offers some type of warranty period that is even more cost that is also added in detracting away from the profit of the end product.

There are three main factors that contribute to the creation of a quality product: engineering, raw material sourcing, and quality workers building the products.

Engineering encompasses the design and implementation of a new product. It begins with forming an understanding of the product “story” which leads to a product “backlog” that is then turned into a working item. During this phase you go through a lot of theoretical design, perhaps schematic design, sourcing the required materials to create the end product, and then the piecing together of the raw materials to create the product. The product is then tested thoroughly to ensure that all faults are detected prior to that product being released into a production phase where mass assembly takes place. The ultimate goal is to get the product as refined as possible before it gets into the hands of the consumers. However, it’s commonplace for products to get out into the “wild” with bug or other design faults that may have held up well in the laboratory and did not manifest or become recognized as an actual flaw until it was experienced by a real world user. Engineering tries to account for all possibilities, but there exists a large human element which is always prone to failure.

Most raw materials that are used in the manufacturing of consumer electronics come from overseas. The producers of those materials make millions of pieces at a time and ship them all over the world to manufacturing plants.  There are some businesses that supply reputable high quality products consistently. They are well known for providing material or components that have a low failure rate (of course, having a failure rate of 0 is virtually unattainable). There also exists a shadier underbelly of this realm, often referred to as a “black market” in some circles. These places often attempt to create components that are similar to the reputable components manufactured elsewhere, they often wear the same specifications and similar white sheets, but they cost a fraction of the “good stuff” and have a much higher rate of failure. Of course, the manufacturer may be more willing to accept that higher risk of failure based upon how much money they save in the long run. However, with do a proper analysis and understanding the concept of cost of quality, the manufacturer would certainly be in a position to realize that they are not actually saving much in the end. Frequent repair and reworking of final assemblies is certainly not profitable.

After you have a product designed and all components sourced, then it is turned over and placed into the hands of the production workers. The teams may be big or small. Each team can be segmented into various smaller specialty areas that are responsible for various processes within the assembly stage. It can range from working with sub-assemblies, testing procedures and much more. The final assembly stage turns the individual sub-assemblies into an actual product. Assuming that there was no failure in the points leading up to the final assembly, the result is a working product that is now ready to be packaged and palletized and sent off to a store shelf. However, if the quality of workers performing the tasks throughout the scope of the assembly process are not that great, then you are destined to encounter failure. For example, if someone is having a bad, it may translate into poor soldering or poor testing, or just generally shoddy work. If the people performing testing are on-point, they may detect faults prior to ending the product on its way through the line, but there exists the possibility for intermittent problems to be present that only manifest occasionally and manage to slip through the cracks and wind up in the hands of a paying consumer. If the workers have not been properly trained on the tools they are expected to use, you can hardly expect a good end result. If the workers have pride in what they do because they are working long hours and getting lousy pay, the product will suffer.

Assuming the product has made it through the different phases of turning idea into tangible goods, it eventually gets into the hands of a consumer who has paid for it with his hard-earned money. The consumer may have spent $50, $100, $500, or $1,000 for the product. To him, the amount of money may be a big investment and he expects it to work. What happens when it doesn’t work?

In some cases, the consumer may take the item back to the store he bought it from for an exchange. Other times the consumer may just take a refund and move on to a different brand of product. More frequently, the consumer finds a contact phone number or email address and reaches out to contact the company who has its brand name on the product. In more cases than not, the consumer is usually agitated and feels a need to vent their frustrations on somebody. That somebody happens to be a person who probably had no impact on the development cycle of a product. That person is just answering the phone to serve as a representative of the company. The consumer doesn’t think logically when angry, he just simply lashes out giving the entire focus of their attack to that guy who is just trying to hold a job hoping to get some sort of resolution. The cool-headed phone rep will often troubleshoot, determine the nature of the problem, and then provide options for ending the situation. It might be replacement, recommendation to exchange where it was purchase, or even the dreaded “please return the product to the manufacturer” speech. In all of this, however, the original people who are involved in the product creation process do not have to deal with it. From the engineer’s right down to the final assembly team, they never have to see that end of the spectrum. They never have to face the end result of poor quality work. They simply punch a time card and do their job, no matter lousy their performance may actually be.

A lot of the negative aspects of this can be avoided by properly addressing the three elements listed earlier. Quality engineering, working with quality raw materials, and having the end product assembled by quality workers results in a quality product. If one of the three is off or not working to potential, then the end is result is inferior products. And that point, you better damn well hope the manufacturer has a fantastic customer support team to take the heat and retain responsibility for the shortcomings in other areas of the process.

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