Looking into new software for statistical process control (SPC) can be challenging and often confusing at the outset. This is because many providers claim to have similar features like real-time data collection and easy installation, though results may vary.

In the end, the best SPC solution is the one that best fits the needs of your business and your process; however, this can be more easily determined in advance by preparing specific questions for SPC providers.

Benjamin Ha is vice president of operations at Zontec, a SPC software developer for manufacturers. He suggests asking these five questions as a starting point for finding an optimal and profitable SPC software solution. 

Does the software operate in real time?

Most SPC software providers tout “real-time” capabilities, but companies should ask providers what their definition of “real-time” is. How much lag time, if any, is acceptable for data collection, reports, and alerts?

In Ha’s view, “real-time” should mean exactly that: immediately taking data, performing calculations on that data, and sending out email or text alerts. “You need a real-time solution to more quickly and efficiently improve your process,” Ha says. This feature should be paramount.

Is the software easy to use?

First and foremost, according to Ha, ease of use should mean “easy to set up.” Once the software arrives, “you don’t want your IT department or anyone who is installing the software to have any issues,” Ha insists. “Installation needs to be easy. Getting your data files set up needs to be easy. And actually getting the data, whether from your operators or from any type of measuring device, needs to be easy.”

Again, most providers claim their software is user-friendly, though this can be a matter of opinion. To determine manual ease of use, Ha recommends starting with the operators on the shop floor, since they’re the ones entering in the data and immediately looking at the control charts, and then going up to the engineers or managers to see how easily they can navigate the software as well. Automated features, of course, increase ease of use and efficiency.

Learning the software should be easy, too. If training takes more than one day, the product is probably not as “user-friendly” as others on the market.

Could you tell me about the software’s built-in rules and methods?

SPC is a time-tested methodology for monitoring and controlling the quality of a manufacturing process. And yet, some providers have a tendency to bend the rules, Ha says, by producing software that puts charts on top of other charts or recalculates control limits. 

There are certain rules in SPC and in the manufacturing process that should be followed, Ha explains, because if they’re not properly followed, problems are likely to occur. For example: “They’re certain things you’re not supposed to recalculate, [like] the control limits, because at that point, you’re always in control, and you don’t know if your process is ever out of control.”

Naturally, the opposite should be true. SPC software should be able to see when a process is out of control and notify the user to make an adjustment, based on accurate information that the software provides.

How will this software provide a positive return on investment?

To ensure a strong ROI, businesses need to be upfront with their SPC software provider about their specific needs, so they can then track their improvement goals through the software itself.

In initial conversations with potential customers, Ha says he first asks about the issues they’re facing, and that the majority of them come back and say they’re experiencing a lot of scrap or rework. After the customer receives the product that best fits their process, Ha continues, they’re already on their way toward a positive ROI—given that the cost of the software itself is usually less than the cost of the issue the customer was experiencing in the first place.

And with real-time SPC software, the customer can immediately begin to see their return, Ha adds, because they’re “able to know immediately if their process is having issues, so they can quickly fix those issues before they become scrap or rework.”

Does it integrate with other software or measuring devices?

Automation and automated data collection are industry game-changers that SPC software providers should be leveraging. Lately, Ha’s customers have been inquiring about how they can connect their SPC software to their bigger database solution, whether that’s ERP software, a MES, or LIMS. They also want to know if and how easily their SPC software can pull data from their smart measuring devices.

“CMMs, PLCs, and vision systems have become much quicker and more accurate,” Ha observes—and increasingly, manufacturers want to know if the SPC software they’re thinking about buying can simply and quickly collect data from these devices. Ideally, your chosen provider should have no problem doing so.