As an Industrial System Engineer with about 35 years of experience, I have noticed a trend over the last dozen years or so: Many of the products and services that we use in our projects, from companies both large and small, seem to have much less quality and support than in years past. The problem has gotten so bad recently that it not only adds significant unexpected increases in project costs and time lost, but it also frequently puts the entire project success in significant jeopardy.
It’s just like when I visit my local big-box store. I have seen the tools there go from a rugged design that were built to last a lifetime, to a greater use of inferior materials that are lucky to last one day of hard work on the job. No doubt, many of these products have been re-engineered after an extended period of competition in the marketplace to increase “efficiency.” That has been frequently misinterpreted by the shortsighted as mostly a reduction in product quality and support purely to reduce costs.(Let us know what you think about quality in electronics today: Take our short survey.)
At many of the companies where we purchase our system components, nearly across the board, not only are the products of lower quality, but frequently they are not completely developed. Instead, they are “tested in the marketplace.” The documentation is also low quality, inaccurate and incomplete. Companies used to team up product engineers and professional technical writers for extended periods of time to publish well-polished and informative product manuals and documentation. Those times are long since passed. I think that even the company lawyers have added their input and have advised that less said in the documentation equals less legal exposure.
This puts my reliance on the product support groups at a critical level. But here too, in the product support area (apparently to trim costs) the manufacturers have severed any direct connections between their users and whatever product engineers still remain. They have instead put in a layer of “Technical Representatives” who know little of the products or applications between us and the people who can actually help us. These technical representatives work as a filter and can only incompletely parrot the problem and questions to their second tier level of support. If I work hard at it for a very long time, after several weeks I might eventually get a response that might lead me to a workaround for my issue.
Another recent trend is for companies to replace their entire internal Product Support groups with “peer support online Internet forums.” In these online forums, users of the company’s product are supposed to help each other. Frequently, a majority of forum postings that are desperately seeking help with difficult technical issues can go for weeks and months without a single response. And often when a response is given, it is from a source that is uninformed and not helpful. When I question companies about the lack of official responses to the forum postings, their response is that “company representatives regularly moderate these online forums and are encouraged to participate but are not required to do so within any specific time frame”.
Currently, my most effective and reliable tool for product support is a Google search for someone that might mention a problem similar to mine and might have a thread that might lead me to a solution to my issue. This means that a problem can last weeks or months while someone is searching for a solution. Some problems lead to a very difficult decision about rejecting a product or component that has been in development for a significant period of time and replacing it with an alternate component that will come with its own different set of problems to be solved.
You can see how difficult it is for a project team to fight through all of the issues that appear with all of the products and components that we purchase and still through to a project completion within the estimated time frame and budget.
I think that many of these quality and support issues are the direct result, in a difficult economy, of a shortsighted effort to reduce costs for greater competitiveness. A few companies still have internal “Product Quality” programs, but frequently those programs are designed to achieve greater product consistency not product quality. These programs work mostly internally without any customer input. I believe that product quality is purely in the eyes of the customer. But, how can you have product quality without regular customer input into the process? And how can you be competitive if your products are of inferior quality and regularly disappoint your customers?
What happens to us when most of our society competes only on lowest cost? I think we end up with more problems similar to the ones the Chinese society has recently experienced:
• piracy and counterfeit parts,
• intentional contamination with inferior materials,
• early part failure,
• reduction in safety and reliability,
• cover ups,
• stolen intellectual policy,
• resulting in more litigation (in the USA),
• and increasing peer pressure to take unwise shortcuts and cheat the system.
Is this where the U.S.A. wants to end up? I don't think so, and I certainly hope not.
So what can engineers do to help reverse this undesirable trend in reduced product quality? How do you stabilize a system that is running out of control? Answer: You add corrective feedback to the system from an observer.
One possible solution is to find a way to publically acknowledge those companies and products that still show signs of good product quality in the hopes that the recognition will spread. This recognition can then be used as a competitive edge over those companies and products that provide less quality. If the Engineering Society, without managerial intervention, contributed their votes to recognize companies and products that they find to provide good quality, then this recommendation could be used as a buyer’s guide or Angie’s List of sorts to help select products and components that have been shown to provide more reliable quality and fewer problems. This, in and of itself, will help those companies and products to survive over their inferior competitors and help project teams make more informed product choices. Let’s help change a race to the bottom on quality into a race to the top, or at least upwards.(Let us know what you think about quality in electronics today: Take our short survey.)