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Building the global quality control ecosystem

New technologies like cloud computing and social networking promise to deliver much-needed, real-time visibility and closed-loop integration to manufacturers with global supplier networks.

Technologies like cloud computing, social networking and collaborative platforms are emerging as the foundation for manufacturers to build global quality-control ecosystems, allowing them to work with far-flung suppliers as fully integrated organizations.

By leveraging new quality control software technologies, manufacturers can create a next-generation supplier network that delivers the visibility and real-time responsiveness that are lacking in today’s siloed systems for plant and quality management.

“Today, products are simply not produced in one factory—components are made in multiple factories, owned by different companies, operating all around the world,” explained Pierfrancesco Manenti, research director for manufacturing in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) at IDC Manufacturing Insights, based in Framingham, Mass. “A quality system made available over the cloud can be shared by multiple organizations at the same time.”

That’s not how it works for most manufacturers today. Companies with multiple, geographically dispersed factories typically have separate plant systems at each location, most of which don’t talk to each other. Visibility is further hampered because suppliers run their own systems to facilitate production, and any meaningful exchange of information on quality issues and plant snafus occurs through fax and phone or by pushing paper around the globe. Such manual interchange does little to create a real-time environment for addressing problems as they occur, or better still, heading them off at the pass in the design phase.

Enterprise applications, virtualized to run in the cloud, can foster business agility and deliver a level of real-time visibility that‘s not possible with today’s siloed approach. “Leveraging the cloud infrastructure with virtualized applications brings everyone online in the same quality management tool,” Manenti explained. “This delivers real-time visibility about what is happening. If you don’t have the cloud, you really can’t [effectively] collaborate across different businesses.”

Fostering social engagement

Another lynchpin in the quality control ecosystem of the future is having a parallel set of systems that are built on social media. Whether it’s a public social networking platform or a private one built into an enterprise system, the end game is the same: provide a layer on top of workhorse quality management and core operational systems to facilitate the exchange of information between key business partners.

“By fostering ad hoc, collaborative social engagement in real time, companies can resolve issues as they arrive,” said Julie Fraser, principal industry analyst for Boston-based consulting company Cambashi and co-chair of the Metrics Working Groups of MESA International. “With quality management, the idea is to catch something before it goes through the rest of the process or goes out to a customer, avoiding recalls and reducing effort.” To push the concept to the next level, Fraser says companies will also tie business process management (BPM) and alert management into a larger global infrastructure to ensure that production doesn’t head off track.

These technologies may constitute the future of a global quality control ecosystem, but it’s still early on, and the platforms are still emerging. Nevertheless, there are more immediate steps manufacturers can take today.

Take Pathway Medical Technologies, a medical device manufacturer based in Kirkland, Wash. A product lifecycle management (PLM) system serves as the central repository for all product- and supplier-related information, but customer complaints about product quality are handled in a separate database. The company plans to integrate the two databases to facilitate reporting and make it easy to communicate quality issues across the value chain, according to Ken Perino, senior director of quality assurance and regulatory compliance.

At testing equipment maker Instron (Norwood, Mass.), the next steps in its quality management journey call for creating a supplier portal that lets key suppliers tap into the firm’s cloud PLM system to check their standing. “It’s all about self-service, so they can come in and look up their rating without having to call someone,” said Cam Bickel, Instron’s manager of document control. “It just allows open exchange of information without the extra effort to make it happen.”

In the end, creating the global quality control ecosystem of the future isn’t just about the technology. It’s about fostering the cultural changes necessary for making quality control and compliance a top priority across partners. “Manufacturers don’t necessarily realize what the new capabilities are,” said Michael Grieves, professor of information systems at the University of Iowa, a consultant to NASA and the author of Product Lifecycle Management: Driving the Next Generation of Lean Thinking. “Purchasing departments are still using those paper-driven inspection sheets when they get a product. They don’t know they can demand something different than that.”

Beth Stackpole is a freelance writer who has been covering the intersection of technology and business for 25-plus years for a variety of trade and business publications and websites.

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