With a variety of software packages to choose from, companies embarking on the Six Sigma journey should have less trouble reaching their destination.

While many companies have just begun exploring the possibilities of Six Sigma, its benefits and its challenges, some companies have been working for years to improve their offerings to help others achieve the Six Sigma goal of 3.4 defects per million opportunities. As a result, a growing number of Six Sigma software products are hitting the market. Offerings vary widely, from systems that help users during the product and process design phase of a project, to those that focus on improving existing processes. But all have the same goal--to help the customer achieve Six Sigma. Here is a look at a just few of the latest offerings.

Pulse it
Motorola Inc. (Schaumburg, IL) has two software offerings in the Six Sigma arena: Manufacturing Intellitrak and Manufacturing Pulse. Intellitrak has been around since the beginning of Six Sigma, according to Michael Motherway, product manager at the company's Elk Grove Village, IL, facility.

A broad set of tools that counts defects and monitors yield and effect, Manufacturing Intellitrak has the flexibility to interface across multivendor lines within a factory. Willie Henderson, business development manager for Motorola in Scotland, explains that by using an intranet, Manufacturing Intellitrak allows users to look at multiple lines throughout the organization over a period of time. "If I want to look at a line in China or Brazil, I can do that from my desk. Then I compare my factory here to a factory in China," says Henderson. The software eliminates human intervention and discrepancies among disparate applications that can impact the validity and reliability of process data.

Motherway explains the movement from Manufacturing Intellitrak to Manufacturing Pulse as a natural progression, likening it to capturing the low hanging fruit first, then moving on to harder-to-reach goals. He explains that most companies start with something simple, which usually means tracking defects and the opportunities to make a defect, often called DPMO (defects per million opportunities). "You get an idea of the complexity of your products and every time there's a mistake made, whether by a person or a machine, you count that. That becomes the Six Sigma metric--the goal is 3.4 defects per million opportunities.

"Companies have a lot of success applying that metric. They Pareto problems, find a root cause and solve them. That works well up until 5 Sigma, maybe 5.5 Sigma. Then, typically you plateau. That method of simply counting defects gets you only so far, and then you have to look for some better methods," says Motherway. "What we've found is that those methods include process controls, real-time process controls, design of experiments and process optimization."

Manufacturing Pulse allows users to gather information in real-time directly from the equipment without human intervention. It allows users to set alarms and process controls. "You let the computers do what they're good at, which is collect and analyze all of that data, and decide when the process is out of control and who to notify. If done in real-time, you can make corrections very quickly, before defects even occur," Motherway explains.

Dog food
Motorola is not only a software developer, but also the largest end user of its own software, or as Motherway jokes, "We eat our own dog food." The company developed an internal group that Motherway likens to a new product introduction center. "We can go there and get accurate feedback; they beat us up. That's nice to have. You don't have to go to an outside customer and get beaten up. We can work out any problems that we have immediately," says Motherway.

He further explains that before a product is released for company-wide internal use, it is taken to an actual factory to ensure that all of the work has been done correctly.

Henderson has been using Manufacturing Pulse at Motorola's Scotland operation since the software was introduced about four years ago. He says some of the improvements that have been made since its introduction include making it more user definable and incorporating more menus so the software can be set to suit the application at hand. "Typically you would monitor machine parameters on the line but not what was happening operator-wise, so we got them to add in that functionality. It meant that, for example, if a production line was running and it wasn't meeting its target, then the supervisor could be notified by e-mail, pager or another method," Henderson explains.

Because of the Internet boom, Manufacturing Pulse has been rearchitected from its original format to Web-enable all of the features, says Motherway, making it easier to roll out to shop floors all over the world, as well as to schedule maintenance.

Another feature Motherway believes sets Motorola apart from competitors is its ability to be vendor "agnostic." Because the company buys factory equipment from a variety of suppliers, Motorola can test its software solutions on a variety of machines and make it compatible.

3-D Six Sigma
While packages such as Motorola's Manufacturing Pulse focus on monitoring and improving factory processes to meet Six Sigma goals, other software products aim to incorporate Six Sigma concerns into the product and process design phase of manufacturing. One such Design for Six Sigma product is CE/TOL 6s, from Sigmetrix (McKinney, TX).

CE/TOL 6s software interfaces through Pro/ENGINEER computer-aided design (CAD) software to provide statistical tolerance analysis for conceptual product modeling, functional assembly modeling, detailed part modeling and manufacturing process modeling, says Timothy Bogard, Sigmetrix president and CEO.

The product is built to take advantage of relatively recent advances in CAD systems, which within the last five to six years have moved heavily into solid modeling, Bogard notes. "This means that the CAD system represents the actual physical behavior of the part much more realistically," he observes. "It represents physical properties that you can probe, touch and assess in a virtual way. But the CAD models, in general, still assume that all parts are perfect, and that when parts go together in assemblies, all assembled conditions are perfect. We've taken that to the next level to address manufacturing quality. Our software recognizes that in the real world, there's not one single instance of a perfect part."

Sigmetrix software analyzes nominally perfect design geometry in light of real-world imperfect behavior using well-defined mathematical principles. "Designers know there's not just one dimension scheme on a part. There's a manufactured scheme and there's a parametric or CAD dimension scheme, and they're not necessarily the same. In the real world, it's how you manufacture the part, not how it's drawn," Bogard explains.

When real-world parts touch each other, there are certain degrees of freedom that can be absolutely described through kinemetic mathematical behaviors, Bogard says. "Each part is a population or a value with a statistical relation. We use calculus-based statistics to integrate all of that together. So with our system, you're getting the population-based behavior for your assembly."

The first step in solving a problem is to understand the sensitivities and key characteristics of the assembly. For example, there might be a critical gap between two features such as a latch on a notebook computer, Bogard observes. The latch may need to overlap by a certain amount so that it doesn't release when it's not supposed to. Even though the key characteristics can be designed into the parts, once the parts from a variety of suppliers are in place, they might vary enough dimensionally from each other to cause gap problems in the final assembly.

What's important?
The Six Sigma methodology says that the best way to describe this behavior is to ask what features are controlling that gap, says Bogard. It could involve plastic parts, hinges, internal metal parts or slide mechanisms. "How all those parts interact with each other create a sensitivity to the latch. That is, a couple of those parts are going to have a much greater effect on that gap than others, so I want to work on the right ones. That's the sensitivity of the nominal behavior of the basic geometry. Sensitivity analysis with statistical analysis gives you populations of behavior around the key features that have the greatest effect on what you want the design to be optimized around," says Bogard. "We're giving the Six Sigma user a tool to see the true sensitivity of the system with respect to their measurements or key characteristics. Then they can use statistical behavior to analyze that robust design."

Bogard calls CE/TOL a closed-form solver because a user can see exactly which surfaces, dimensions and features have the greatest impact on the measurements of interest. "You know precisely where to work the problem," says Bogard. "And because it's so closely tied to a statistical solver, optimization and manufacturing process interface, you can play 'what if' very quickly. If I have a certain capability in the manufacturing process, then what is the effect on the design?"

Nabil Abu Gharbieh, Design for Six Sigma leader at Honeywell Aircraft Landing Systems (South Bend, IN), says CE/TOL uses manufacturing capability information to relate tolerances not only to design requirements, but to one's ability to produce those parts. "You can play around and change those tolerances to optimize your ability to produce it to the requirements of the design," he says. "Or you can use it to meet design for manufacturing, design for assembly and design for reliability goals."

Robert Zvonar, manager of design services at Honeywell, notes that the company acquired the CE/TOL package late last year when the company needed a 3-D tolerance analysis program for large wheel and brake assemblies. "In the old method of doing it, which was basically hand calculation and layouts, it took anywhere from four to six days. With CE/TOL, the work was completed in about six hours," he observes. In the long term, by enabling Honeywell to design products based on the company's manufacturing capability, the CE/TOL software should result in reduced scrap and rework, Zvonar adds.

Pull, don't push
Yet another software approach to helping clients achieve Six Sigma is taken by Six Sigma Academy (Scottsdale, AZ), a consulting firm. In January, the company unveiled Essenteq, a Web-based solution designed to bring Six Sigma knowledge management, project management and training services together though an Internet portal.

Terry Ziemer, senior vice president of Six Sigma Academy, explains how a portal is different than a Web site. "A Web site is something that you go to and see hyperlinks that take you to different spaces. It's a push technology, whereas a portal is more of a pull technology because the client can put any kind of portal object into the portal and bring it to the user, instead of having the user go out and get it. The portal actually brings the information in."

Ziemer says that Essenteq is a result of years of frustration and sometimes success. About a year ago, the company decided to take a Six Sigma approach to developing software. Its first step was to talk to customers about their Six Sigma needs and what frustrates them, Zeimer says. "A primary thing that we came to realize is that consulting companies are great at consulting and they ought to stick to consulting because they're not very good at making software," Ziemer relates. "As a consulting company, we had done that in the past and had made that mistake." So before launching the Essenteq project, he says, "we brought in some outstanding technology people."

Although Six Sigma Academy had previously delved into Six Sigma software, the company took a different approach to developing Essenteq, says Ziemer. While past efforts had been focused primarily on the needs of end users, Essenteq was developed more with an eye toward meeting corporate, or enterprise-wide Six Sigma needs, he explains.

During the research phase of the project, Six Sigma Academy's software developers set up a list of objectives critical to quality (CTQs) they wanted to accomplish with the software. One of the primary CTQs was "to build a system that allows us to do Six Sigma on Six Sigma itself," says Ziemer. "What I mean by that is if someone is a Black Belt, he or she has to find some CTQ that's linked to a business objective and examine the process to find what variable in the process has leverage that can be used to improve the performance of that piece. No one had a system that allowed Black Belts to measure the performance or the things that control the performance," Zeimer says. "So that's what we set out to develop." The goal was a software product that would allow users to measure what is going on in a process, analyze the data and then determine how to make improvements in overall performance for Six Sigma, he observes.

The company also wanted to address some specific customer needs. Customers who had embarked on the Six Sigma trail several years prior told Ziemer that they had learned a lot about every facet of their businesses and how they operated, but that there was no place to store "the black market of Six Sigma knowledge running around their companies."

Ziemer says that most of the Six Sigma software available are essentially databases that allows Black Belts to enter information about current projects. Essenteq has a database capability, but the program goes beyond project management to focus on knowledge management, says Ziemer, by providing a system that allows everyone in a company to see the knowledge that has been gathered.

When a Six Sigma team initially scopes out a project, they're given a template of the activities they should go through during the course of the project, explains Ziemer, and for each activity, they can decide how long that particular aspect of the project should take. The software provides an alert system that notifies the team via e-mail if the steps of a project are not done on time.

Knowledge control
The portal technology allows clients and their IT departments to set up client-specific portal objects, whether they be newsletters or best practices, to share the knowledge company-wide. "The portal can control the whole flow of knowledge throughout an organization," claims Ziemer.

Another feature designed around the portal technology is a knowledge store. Zeimer says that all of the Six Sigma reference material his company has collected through the years is loaded into the knowledge store for clients to access. In addition, a customer has the ability to load anything he or she wants into the knowledge store, including ISO, Six Sigma and other standards.

Six Sigma Academy works with the management team in a company to establish an entire communication plan, including delivering the message as to why Six Sigma is important to the organization, what each person's role is and how the cultural change will help and organization become better. Once management determines the key message, Essenteq uses the portal technology to deliver it.

Tech Tips

  • Some Six Sigma software tracks production lines in real-time and sends out alerts when a process begins to drift out of specification.
  • 3-D tolerance analysis can simulate the production process to determine where problems will occur, thereby preventing defects and scrap.
  • Portal technology incorporated in some Six Sigma software solutions can be used to keep the entire company informed of the latest developments.