What are typical product quality and reliability issues, when do they occur in the product’s lifecycle, and who might be responsible for them?
Launching a new product on the market provides good and bad feedback
If you launch a product, you will get some feedback from the market. You will see how well the product sells. That’s on the “good news” front. And you will also know if your product fails, too.
By “fail”, I mean it stops working after a while, or if it shows some ‘wear and tear’ effect too early in its life. The people who bought your product and/or are using it will not be happy, and you will see complaints, returns (especially if you offer a warranty), poor reviews, and get a hit to your reputation.
However, how to know what the causes of those product quality and reliability failures are?
They are NOT all of the same nature. Let’s try to break it down.
I found it useful to draw the classic “bathtub curve” that preventive maintenance and product reliability engineers are familiar with and went through it in this video exploring product quality and reliability failures.
1. Manufacturing quality issues
Some of these failures are due to poor manufacturing quality and that’s usually what people have in mind. They tend to think a product that broke was made in a bad factory.
This category includes poor assembly, it includes poor upstream processing, and it also includes poor components that fail much earlier than they should.
For example, the soldering on the PCB might not have been done well, which leads it to break easily whenever there is a shock — and that, in turn, means the entire product stops working.
Another example would be the glue that holds the product together. If it is not appropriate for the usage and also for the exposure to temperature, humidity and sunlight, it will stop bonding the parts way earlier than expected.
As I showed in the video higher on this page, the bulk of these failures are detected within a few months after the product is put on the market.
2. ‘Wear out’ effect on the product
Some other failures are due to the ageing of some of the components.
For example, certain components made of ferrous alloys will show fatigue after a certain number of cycles, and from that point, they will stop displaying their mechanical properties.
Some materials might corrode, and again it might affect whether the product works.
Would one expect a product to keep working the same way forever? Usually, not. For example, do you expect to buy a combustion engine car for under 10,000 USD and drive it for 2 million km??
Those failures become much more frequent after some time has passed. It will tend to come earlier for products that are used intensively, or in extreme conditions. For complex products made of a number of critical components, it will certainly come at one point.
3. Usage-related stresses
And then there is another wide category of sources of failure. It is simply down to the daily stresses of use. There are two types of usage:
- What one could call “proper use” (just as the product was designed to be used). Still, the environment might get a bit too hot, there might be a surge in current, and there might be other stresses that can lead to a product no longer being fit in the eyes of the user.
- It also includes “abnormal use” and that is typical of people who receive a product, do not read the instruction manual, do not pay much attention to it, and maybe abuse it. For instance, taking a city bike for a harsh trip over dirt & gravel roads.
In the worst case, the failure is catastrophic and leads to a safety risk. For the latest scary example, see Fiido X e-bike recalled due to risk of breaking in half. This is, unfortunately, still common with products developed by a Chinese company. And no, it does not come from poor assembly…
Whom to blame?
Overall, if one adds up the three different curves in the graph, that’s the total failure rate (the blue curve):
If you don’t think of the underlying causes, you might blame your contract manufacturer for all product quality and reliability failures. And no, that’s not fair.
As I wrote before, many quality issues come from poor product design.
The issues coming from manufacturing quality tend to appear in the first 3 to 6 months, at the beginning. Why? Because something that is not assembled properly is either non-functioning on arrival or will show its limitations very fast.
It’s not always the case, of course. A buyer may specify the way to plate a product, and yet that process may be poorly done, and the plating layer may wear out prematurely. In a case we worked on last year, the issue became quite visible more than 6 months after delivery (the sweat and other chemicals from the user’s skin were rubbing the plating off). But, as a general rule, most of these issues tend to be apparent shortly after delivery.
If you have problems 12 or 18 months after delivery of the product, they are probably not due to manufacturing quality. It is probably due to the inherent lack of reliability of the product’s design.
And yes, this is driven by the design of the product.
In fact, even some of the manufacturing quality issues are driven by the design; for example, if you don’t specify what exact glue to use it is an invitation to your contract manufacturer to pick a cheap option. Why do you expect them to think beyond “it needs to pass final inspection, a few days after production”?
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