Software & Analysis: Advances in Mobile Data Collection Extend Quality's Reach

June 1, 2011
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Today’s portable devices allow quality analysis technologies to extend beyond the plant floor for complete traceability and enhanced collaboration.


Today’s consumer electronics are extraordinary. From advanced desktop computers and handheld devices to cellular telephones, advanced, simple-to-use electronics are found everywhere. What makes them truly exceptional is their ability to link to cellular networks and the Internet, resulting in a global interconnectedness that, just a couple of decades ago, was the stuff of science fiction fantasy.

Immediate communication with people in different countries is the rule rather than the exception. “Free” international phone calls can be made without the use of traditional telecommunications technologies. Cell phones make calls without consuming cellular minutes. These easily accessible and inexpensive technologies allow us to be on-line no matter where someone is and at little cost. As a result, global, instantaneous communications have become commonplace for consumers.

So why not leverage this same technology in manufacturing? Communication, collaboration and visibility are key factors in managing quality from site to site and from supplier to manufacturer. Using mobile devices to capture and share data where it was previously unable to be collected has the potential to dramatically improve product quality.





Regardless of where production takes place, portable data collection brings the quality system directly to the product. Source: InfinityQS

Current State

Many manufacturers operate in a technological stone age when it comes to data collection and storage. New technologies are rarely used for logging quality or inspection data. To prove it, just look around a manufacturing facility-few computers are found on the shop floor. Instead, the use of paper and pencil is most prevalent.

Product feature checks, safety checks, setup checks and a variety of other critical-to-quality data are still written on paper. Sometimes the data values are transcribed onto spreadsheets. Even then, different formats, errors in transcription and the cost of double-entering data can make the spreadsheets difficult to work with. They languish on individual computers like the electronic versions of paper that they are. Paper use is so widespread in some companies that on-site “librarians” are employed to manage the large amount of records.





The Result

Paper-based systems make reporting extremely challenging. This is true even when the data has been typed into spreadsheets. A corporate quality director once relayed that it took a team of five people six entire days to track down all the quality data for one of its products. Why? Because the data the team needed was scattered across several paper-based systems.

To complicate matters, most information technologies are focused on the plant itself. While on-site software products may be leveraged in lieu of paper, there exists minimal interest in communicating quality data outside of a plant’s four walls. Whether between supplier and manufacturer or from one corporate-owned plant to another, there is a sense of “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.” As a result, plants and systems are often disconnected with little or no ability to communicate data outside of the four walls.



The Future Today

There are some manufacturing companies who have moved away from paper-based systems in exchange for electronic and even Web-based solutions. In fact, most companies already possess the infrastructure necessary to support mobile data collection, including access to:

A wired or wireless network

The Internet

A cellular network

Portable handheld electronic devices such as tablet computers and cellular telephones

Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)



If unfamiliar with Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), consider how bank account balances can be checked online. Basically, users pull up a Web site and log in. That’s all. No need to install software on your computer. In fact, one doesn’t need a computer at all. You can check your balance using a tablet computer or smart phone from anywhere. Instantaneous access is available no matter the time of the day or the country in which you are standing. Best of all, when transactions occur, they are automatically posted. So when you check your balance, you are privy to the most up-to-date data available, all in real-time.





Example

Now imagine that this technology has replaced paper on the manufacturing shop floor. An operator uses a gage connected to a traditional computer to periodically measure his or her products and enter results. A roving inspector with a tablet computer slung over her shoulder walks from one production line to the next logging defect codes. A process engineer performs confirmatory checks with his cellular phone.

Regardless of the hardware used, data is passed to a single, shared, centralized database. Database location is unimportant. It could be somewhere in cyberspace, such as a bank’s database. The critical component is that the database is secured and users have access to the data.

At the same time data is being entered, the plant’s quality manager is visiting a supplier. His plane has just landed in China. He takes out a handheld device, logs onto a wireless network and clicks a link. The result is a summary report of his home plant’s quality data for the past 24 hours.

Because the quality checks are entered in real-time from his plant, the most recent data is always available. No waiting for a clerk to gather up paper on the shop floor. No waiting for an administrative assistant to interpret hand-written numbers and type them into a spreadsheet.

Imagine also that his Shanghai supplier enters their quality data into the same database. As the quality manager gets into his taxi he logs onto the local cellular network. Then, he clicks on a different link on his cell phone. A report summarizes the Shanghai plant’s quality information for the past week. Since everything is online, he also receives e-mails from China when defect levels increase or when an alarm is triggered.



Mobile Data Collection Benefits

Nothing is actually new or futuristic about the aforementioned scenario. Instead, all of these technologies are readily available, and even inexpensive. Some of the most cutting-edge manufacturers are already employing these technologies today to save time, improve communication and control quality on a global level.

These technologies make data collection, communication and global plant reporting easy. Most importantly, leveraging these technologies for quality systems should help mitigate or reduce the possibility of low quality or unsafe products getting into consumers’ hands, while minimizing costs across the supply chain.

Here are some other benefits of mobile data collection:

Collaboration. Problem-solving activities are driven by data. Without it, corrective actions are virtually impossible. Imagine that when an issue occurs, experts have instantaneous access to the data surrounding the event. When an alert is triggered by off-quality product from a supplier in China, a quality engineer in Chicago receives an e-mail describing the event. Together, the responsible parties in both countries discuss the issue. These discussions lead to process control actions necessary to ensure off-quality product does not enter the supply chain. By doing so, global costs can be reduced while quality levels can be increased by those sharing a vested interest in the outcome.

Traceability. Typically, organizations like to associate traceability fields, such as the shift, lot code or batch, to their quality data. That way, data can be “sliced and diced” based on what is most important. Now, assume that each vendor and supplier associates a common traceability field-such as a lot code-to each manufacturing step at each plant. From raw materials and subcomponents to final product assembly, data is passed to a shared database. If so, then “womb-to-tomb” traceability would be a reality. No more paper. No more mailing certificates of analysis. Users could just log onto the database, type in a lot code and get the information they need.

Reporting. If traceability information is leveraged from one production step (and plant) to the next, the result is a linkage from raw materials to finished goods. If there happens to be a problem with a finished lot, all of the components, subcomponents and raw materials can be traced. This traceability dramatically improves the ability to track down problem causes and minimize recall costs. Also, raw materials can be traced to final finished goods. Manufacturers can trace global raw material consumption to the last plant where finished goods are packaged through a genealogical “tree.”

In effect, mobile data collection and its related technologies could optimize supply chain efficiencies by dramatically improving information exchange while allowing an unheard-of level of flexibility in data collection and reporting. By doing so, manufacturers could not only reduce overall costs of data collection and reporting, but they could further reduce global quality costs, protect final consumers from off-quality products and greatly expand data accessibility.



While consumers enjoy a connectedness on par with something out of a science fiction novel from the 1960s or 1970s, manufacturing organizations, for the most part, have not been early adopters. And yet, the technology is available if they choose to use it. The use of mobile data collection hardware to enter critical quality and traceability information and provide data accessibility worldwide is underutilized today.

It is as easy as leveraging existing IT infrastructures with commonly accessible and cost-effective mobile consumer technologies. By doing so, organizations can further remove costs from the overall supply chain, minimize the possibility of expensive recalls, prevent problems and improve product quality on a global scale. Q



Tech Tips

The use of mobile data collection hardware to enter critical quality and traceability information and provide data accessibility worldwide is underutilized today.

Communication, collaboration and visibility are key factors in managing quality from site to site and from supplier to manufacturer.

Using mobile devices to capture and share data where it was previously unable to be collected has the potential to dramatically improve product quality.

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