The Internet, it is often said, "changes everything." Thanks to new Web-based software, the Advanced Product Quality Planning (APQP) process used in the automotive industry is no exception to that rule.

Developed in 1994 by the Automotive Industry Action Group, an auto industry consortium, APQP is a systematic product introduction process that aims to facili-tate supply chain communication and ensure quality throughout the vehicle development process. Those are admirable goals, of course. But in some cases, the complexities and extensive documentation requirements of the APQP process have produced a paperwork nightmare for automotive OEMs and their suppliers.

Now, however, an emerging generation of Web-based APQP software promises to change all that. By enabling instant communication, document exchange and program management through a single, secure browser interface, Web-based APQP will dramatically reduce time and paperwork requirements. Indeed, according to Atulya Risal, chief technology officer at software supplier Pilgrim Software Inc. (Tampa, FL), "Web-based APQP is going to revolutionize the new product introduction process."

More than ever, getting to market quickly is a top priority for automotive OEMs and suppliers. Gone are the days when five years or more were needed to take a car from the drawing board to the showroom floor. Today, the industry goal is 12 months. The move toward production outsourcing adds to the challenge, making the supply chain longer and more complex. Customer demands for higher quality, improved safety, more features and lower cost further strain the industry.

The Automotive Industry Action Group--which includes participation by DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors--developed APQP as a way to ensure that product quality is maintained and customer requirements are fully met. APQP is designed to standardize the manuals, procedures, reporting formats and technical terminology used in the industry. APQP guidelines are intended to assist automotive suppliers in developing a quality plan that supports the development of a product or service that meets customer requirements.

Theory vs. reality
In theory, APQP provides a continual flow of information up and down the supply chain. Customer requirements are communicated, and the entire sup-ply chain collaborates to deliver the product the customer wants, when the customer wants it. But in practice, APQP for many has proven to be expensive, paper-intensive and difficult to correctly manage.

The challenge in a successful APQP program is to connect the various links in the supply chain. A small substitution of a part may seem insignificant to a supplier, but in a complex automotive system, it can have a tremendous impact. APQP seeks to remove the blinders from the eyes of individual suppliers so that they see the big picture, rather than just their individual contributions. Developing a high level of collaboration within the supply chain is essential if the industry is to reach its goal of a 12-month new product design cycle.

Individual manufacturers face another APQP-related challenge--communication among their own departments. In designing a new product, multidisciplinary teams from departments as diverse as engineering, manufacturing, marketing and operations follow a project from incep-tion through production. These teams monitor the new product introduction process to ensure that customer requirements are fully addressed. Ensuring that these departments collaborate effectively is a critical component of APQP.

APQP is organized along five phases: Plan and Define; Product Design and Development; Process Design and Development; Product and Process Validation; and Feedback, Assessment and Corrective Action.

Each phase builds on work performed in the previous stage, but also facilitates the concurrent development of the product and manufacturing process. Documentation, including control plans, Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA) and Product Part Approval Process (PPAP) ensures that requirements are met and carries vital information between stages. It is this consistent flow of information that gives APQP its tremendous potential; however, the vast amount of data that must be exchanged places a heavy burden on suppliers and OEMs. In the scramble to produce and deliver the documentation required of the APQP process, it is easy to lose sight of its intended goals--customer satisfaction, higher quality and faster time-to-market. Often APQP becomes more of an exercise in paperwork than quality.

Because of the complexities involved in APQP, it is not surprising that many manufacturers have recently turned to software systems to automate the paper-intensive process. Since no single system existed to automate the entire APQP process, manufacturers have traditionally chosen to implement several systems in a piecework approach to the process.

These systems, which included proj-ect management software, spreadsheets, e-mail and other PC-based tools, were effective in limited capacity but proved cumbersome as operators had to learn and switch between several diverse systems. Since most of these systems were not Web-based, communication between departments located in disparate areas of the world and within the supply chain was a major obstacle. More efficiency and better collaboration were needed to truly automate the APQP process.

Web to the rescue
Pilgrim Software began collaborating with Caterpillar Fuel Systems (Pontiac, IL) and other major automotive manufacturers seeking a single application to replace separate systems for collecting, managing and analyzing data within their new product introduction process. For Caterpillar, this single application not only would have to manage the entire APQP process, but also connect operators at all three of Caterpillar's locations for seamless participation in the system. On April 2, 2001, Caterpillar Fuel Systems became one of the first automotive OEMs to go live with a Web-based APQP solution.

"The APQP solution developed and then implemented at Caterpillar represents a fundamental advancement in how APQP is approached. By moving APQP to the Internet, we can cost effectively connect everyone involved in the design and production process--engineers, suppliers and even customers," says Pilgrim's Risal.

The result of this connection is a virtual workspace where data and ideas can be shared across departments and the supply chain during the new product introduction process. Regardless of physical location, system operators can log in and perform their portion of the APQP process. They also can work out potential problems and share ideas via an online discussion database. As solutions are reached, templates can be created and reused to solve similar issues in other products, and can form the basis for derivative pro-ducts for new markets. This information, previously stored on paper, in individual computers or in the engineer's mind, can now be made available for the entire enterprise.

Over the long run, Pilgrim's web-based APQP software is estimated to save about half of the time associated with the new product introduction cycle. This saving results from the elimination of labor-intensive processes including the rediscovery and relearning of information, re-entry of information, elimination of multiple document versions and improved communi-cation throughout the design pro-cess and supply chain.

One of the key benefits of Web-based APQP is its ability to manage all functions of the APQP process, including program management, change management, and activity and task management from one interface. With Web-based APQP, an organization can launch a project and send out tasks and activities to the people involved. It also allows them to identify and monitor the critical path for the project. This improves the flow of information within an organization as operators can quickly access the information that relates to them rather than sorting through reams of data stored in several systems.

"With Web-based APQP we've been able to automate the entire APQP workflow," says Risal. "Every core document and procedure, including control plans, FMEA and PPAP, can be completed online and sent to the next phase of the APQP project. By streamlining this workflow and routing everything via the Internet, we can greatly reduce the time-to-market for new products and tightly integrate quality into the design process."

ERP integration
Although Web-based APQP can be a stand-alone solution, greater leverage is gained through integrating with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems. This integration helps to eliminate duplicate effort and ensures coordinated action throughout the new product introduction process.

Integration of APQP and ERP systems creates a structured and effective system for controlling product changes. It ensures that no change is introduced into the manufacturing process without first receiving the necessary quality approvals orchestrated through the APQP process.

One example of how integration of ERP and APQP can create benefits is through an active comparison of a manufacturing control plan and the router that actually gives instruction on how to build the product. The control plan is created in advance for a general product in the APQP system. The router, stored in the ERP system, gives step-by-step instruction on how to build the specific product. Since the router is designed to fulfill the control plan, it is essential that these two documents be in sync. Integration between the ERP and APQP systems will automatically compare the two documents and flag inconsistencies. This allows the engineer to quickly identify and remedy the discrepancy before production begins.

Beyond automotive
APQP is a requirement for automotive manufacturers, but the basic tenants of the process are used across a wide variety of manufacturers. Industries as diverse as medical device manufacturing, pharmaceutical manufacturing and aerospace are beginning to investigate Web-based APQP software to streamline their own new product introduction cycles. ISO 9000 certified manufacturers can benefit from using APQP functionality to manage supplier quality during the design process.

"The demand for collaborative Web-based APQP goes far beyond the automotive industry," explains Risal. "Designing better products and getting them to market faster is a goal for any industry. User-friendly, collaborative APQP software can be the key for reaching this goal."