It’s no mistake that a Starbucks latte tastes the same in Chicago as it does in Tokyo. Or that the reassuring “thud” of your BMW driver side door has a ring of quality to it. Or even the satisfaction of pulling the starting cord on your Briggs & Stratton lawnmower and having it start on the first pull. Quality experiences like these are the result of the “mega-machine of quality”—the people, processes, and technology that live behind the products and services that we experience every day.

Individuals and companies are exposed to the mega-machine of quality daily, often without even knowing it. We make hundreds of assessments of quality every day, some consciously and most unconsciously. As the great driver behind the manufacture of everything from military hardware to fast-food sandwiches, the mega-machine of quality is key to creating product consistency, customer satisfaction, brand loyalty and, ultimately, enhanced profitability and business value for the manufacturer. Certainly, the idea of quality is nothing new but the application of automated quality management processes and the technology that makes it possible is constantly evolving. Today, we are seeing the convergence of critical technologies in the quality arena that will prove to be superchargers for the mega-machine in the near future. Some of these are new technologies, while others have matured in other industries and are now being applied and adapted to the manufacturing world.

Data and Advanced Data Analytics

“Data is the new oil” is a phrase that’s been adopted by technologists worldwide and it’s fully applicable to the quality realm, too. The idea is that, like oil in the early 20th century, data (once refined) will power the global economy into the next century. Just like standing next to the proverbial oil “gusher” in 1910, manufacturers and quality professionals are awash in data today, and it pours in from sources across the enterprise. Whether it’s data collected by sensors on the factory floor, product lifecycle management (PLM) software, enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, statistical process control (SPC) information, connected workers in the field, logistical data or supply chain information, there is no shortage of information that can be collected, processed and put to work by quality professionals to drive continual improvement in products, systems and processes.

Identifying and extracting the data from all the sources in and around a company’s quality management system (QMS) is just the beginning of the effort. The data arrives in many forms—structured and unstructured—and is generally collected in a data lake before it can be processed sufficiently to draw significant actionable insights. Today, business intelligence (BI) and analytics software can extract critical information from the data lake and provide insights. The next technological leap—and it’s gaining momentum daily—is to deploy machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) tools to automate data analysis and make it useful as a predictive tool. In other words, standard BI software can tell you what is happening, while advanced analytics using AI and ML will tell what is going to happen. These advanced data analysis tools were once the province of well-funded organizations—they were expensive, complicated and required a fair amount of handholding from the vendor to be effective. Significantly, enterprise data lakes are often dominated by the data needs of operations, sales, finance and strategic planning departments. Quality practitioners are often left fighting to deposit quality-relevant data into the lake and, if they are successful there, struggling to gain access to the data and analytics tools to extract data intelligence that will help their department.

Today, however, the algorithms that underpin those data-driven insights have largely been commoditized and are readily available to any organization at vastly reduced cost. Quality professionals can now use these advanced tools without having to either spend heavily or write the algorithms themselves. They can create a federated data lake of quality information that they can easily build, access and refine themselves. With all that analytical horsepower now easily accessible in the cloud, quality pros can put it to work to drive and improve the mega-machine of quality in ways that were not available to them only a couple of years ago.

Mobility and Agility

With the easy availability of richer data insights, advanced mobile technology will allow quality practitioners to add to or extract those insights to make better decisions no matter where they are on the globe. Effectively, mobile technology puts real-time decision-making capabilities at a quality pro’s fingertips—literally. Imagine the potential impact of submitting data on a mobile device which goes directly into the data lake, and then getting reports back on the same device driven by an AI algorithm in real-time. The ability to immediately act on that analysis brings a level of intelligence and agility to manufacturing and quality management that is unprecedented.

In addition to the agility offered by real-time access to AI-powered insights from almost any location, the broader implications for agile manufacturing and quality demand that any modern QMS software solution must itself be agile and adaptable to changes inside a company, dynamic market and competitive forces, and a rapidly changing regulatory landscape. “Adapt or die” isn’t an idle threat in the business world. Once again, innovation and the democratization of technology plays an important role here as the rise of QMS software platforms with visual designer capabilities allows quality professionals to configure their systems to precisely match their quality environments and easily adapt to any changes in the company, market or regulatory arena. In leveraging the easy-to-use application design capabilities in modern QMS systems, quality departments can ease some of the burden on IT, and also lessen their own reliance on IT to build or modify quality applications for them.

Collaboration Portals for Supply Chain Quality

Product quality is only as strong as the weakest link in the supply chain. Supply chains are getting deeper and more global, as fewer OEMs engage in a vertical integration model and instead rely on the expertise in their suppliers. In fact, at ETQ, we have several customers with suppliers numbering in the thousands. When I asked the CEO of a major aerospace firm about the breadth of its supply chain, he replied that the company had 2,000 suppliers, “that we know of.” That last notion implies that the company’s actual supply chain may be many multiples of that number as it grows longer and less transparent.

This dynamic opens every manufacturer to supply chain risk which, in turn, jeopardizes overall quality. Technology is helping to temper that risk by providing Web-based collaboration portals between manufacturers and their suppliers. These portals are mirror images of the QMS that are accessible outside of the corporate firewall. Relevant supplier quality data is passed through the firewall via secure and customer-configurable channels, giving suppliers access to only the relevant portions of the QMS, without exposing any internal enterprise systems. Even better, suppliers can work seamlessly in a quality workflow in step with their “internal” counterparts in the OEM. As a result, manufacturers can be assured that their suppliers deliver components that meet their quality standards before those products arrive at the manufacturer’s facility, which means better initial quality, less scrap, rework and waste, diminished likelihood of recalls and all the monetary and brand reputation costs that those problems entail.

Technology as a Catalyst to the Mega-Machine

While some of these developments rely on highly advanced technology, the reality is that quality practitioners can take advantage of most of them today. These tools make their jobs easier and more efficient and empowers their company to use quality management as a catalyst to business performance. When they do so, they leverage easy-to-adopt and easy-to-deploy technology as a catalyst to the mega-machine of quality that allows consumers to order and experience the same high-quality, safe and consistent products—whether it’s a package of M&Ms, a GE Transportation locomotive, or a replacement hip joint—no matter where they are in the world. And when the world changes around them, these same pros can use the technological tools at their disposal to adapt with a precision and agility they never could before.