But in recent years, a new model has begun to emerge based on Internet technology. Today's Web technologies are ushering in a new breed of quality-focused applications that provide similar, and sometimes better, functionality than traditional network-based programs.
Unlike traditional corporate networking applications, which are run and maintained on in-house servers, Web-based application programs run from a remote server, usually hosted by the software's provider, who is referred to as an Application Service Provider (ASP). End users pay a monthly rental fee to access an ASP application via the Internet. This approach can provide a cost-effective alternative to in-house software and networking systems, not only for smaller companies with limited technology budgets, but also for larger companies as a form of outsourcing.
ASPs today are delivering a growing number of quality assurance-related applications that provide various advantages for users, when compared to in-house network-based software. These advantages include:
In the ASP world today, one basic tool used by quality professionals is a Web-based Document Management System (WDMS), the Internet equivalent of the better known network-based Electronic Document Management System (EDMS).
A WDMS application -- accessed by quality professionals and other company personnel over the Internet -- can be used to manage and control a large number of internal documents and forms, ranging from engineering drawings and design change documents to shop floor inspection records and purchase orders. Workflow capabilities built into the software allow electronic documents to be automatically presented to appropriate personnel for review, completion, approval and filing. Other key advantages include the software's ability to automate the steps in a document's life cycle and to ensure that everyone accesses the most current information.
Manufacturing companies today are increasingly turning to WDMS applications for internal management and control of quality-related documents. In many cases, these Web-based packages are used to meet ISO-9000 documentation requirements and automate the administration of the Quality Management System. Further, as the technology finds broader use, one of the latest trends is the use of WDMS applications for interaction and information sharing with outside organizations.
Unlike a private corporate intranet, which typically restricts access to a company's internal staff, a WDMS application makes it easy to share information with outside parties. As a result, a growing number of companies are using the technology to make documents accessible to customers, suppliers and others to whom time-sensitive information is vital.
The advantages of this approach are many. Traditional methods for information sharing among companies typically involve phone, fax, e-mail and "snail mail." All of these communication methods have three key drawbacks:
By contrast, a Web-based application allows everyone to access the exact same document -- improving the accuracy and timeliness of the information, and eliminating opportunities for error. When compared to more traditional information-sharing techniques, an ASP application can in many cases reduce communication time from hours or days to only seconds. In addition, with a Web-based application, several parties can input information as well as access the information simultaneously.
The old way
This has significant implications for quality. Consider the typical buying process of a manufacturing company. A purchasing department runs a report from its network system and converts the information into a form to be communicated to the supplier. In more sophisticated companies, this can be done electronically, via electronic data interchange, or EDI. More often, a buyer has to make a phone call, print-and-fax, or send e-mail to the supplier with the order request. If there are technical specifications or drawings involved, those also have to be sent either electronically or via traditional mail.
The supplier then receives the purchasing information and reviews it. Often questions are raised or changes suggested that need to be communicated back to the customer. This back-and-forth exchange delays the purchasing process and introduces opportunity for information to be lost, or for out-dated information to be accidentally used. A lack of reliable "version control" during this process frequently leads to misshipments or delays. After the supplier accepts the order, its status must be monitored and communicated to the customer until the product ships.
At every step in this process, a hand-off of information between organizations introduces risks to the process with potential costly consequences to both companies. Indeed, this traditional paperwork shuffle introduces numerous sources for error that can have a negative impact on quality.
An ASP application, on the other hand, streamlines the purchasing process and makes it more reliable. An ASP application ties both companies together, allowing everyone to access a single source of information, thus reducing the possibility of lost or outdated information in the process.
To initiate the purchase, the buyer generates an electronic document containing the ordering information and uploads that into the WDMS system. Once the document is loaded, appropriate individuals within the customer and supplier organizations are simultaneously notified via e-mail that a document awaits their electronic review, prior to finalization. Each reviewer accesses the document via the Web, then submits a "redline" copy of the document, or simply provides written comments back to the sender through the WDMS.
The document's sender then reviews the input from the reviewers, makes final edits to the document, and notifies the supplier's sales department, which accesses the document and provides a purchase order acknowledgement and electronic signature. The purchasing document and any associated supporting documents are then filed in a common WDMS database for future reference by both organizations. The time, expense and quality risks of the purchasing process are thereby significantly reduced using the Internet.
In addition to purchasing processes, WDMS applications are being used by companies of all sizes and industries to simplify additional supply chain documentation processes including:
ASPs are not the only way that companies can collaborate electronically, of course. In some industries, efforts are underway to link together the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems of multiple companies as a way to improve supply chain management. The fact that ERP systems are typically not optimized for document management, however, can lead to challenges with this approach. In addition, differences in operating systems, networking systems and other compatibility issues can also foster interconnectivity problems.
As a result, ASP-based systems can often provide a more cost-effective solution for supply chain collaboration. With an ASP, interconnectivity problems disappear, for example, because all that is needed to access the system is an Internet connection and a Web browser.
ASP systems can also bring some unique capabilities to the supply chain, such as multilingual communication. While a U.S. company could access a WDMS application and view all of the system screens in English, for example, its Mexican supplier, with the click of a mouse, could view the same screens in Spanish. Future automatic translation capabilities will allow the documents themselves, in addition to screen interfaces, to be accessed and viewed in multiple languages.
The Internet is here to stay and will continue to become a more functional and trusted means of doing business as technologies continue to evolve. Quality professionals responsible for providing the systems and tools needed for improved quality performance might do well to look closely at the newest wave of Web-based applications as a possible resource.
New ASP applications are offering unique solutions to information sharing and inter-company processes that weren't available even three or four years ago. They provide state-of-the-art computer functionality without the cost and technical barriers of traditional network-based programs.
As these technologies develop, the management of supply-chain quality and other intercompany business processes may be the next key area where quality professionals can provide valuable contributions.