This will be the year that every company doubles down on technology-fueled experiences, operations, products, and ecosystems, according to Forrester. But it’s not just technology for technology’s sake. As this year has taught us, companies today understand that a digital-first mindset just might be the only way to keep quality on track, avoid the minefields that can jeopardize business growth and help companies push ahead in a post-COVID-world.

For these reasons quality management systems (QMS) are becoming front-line workers in the digital toolkit. Software-driven quality programs have been helping companies meet regulatory compliance requirements, as well as compliance to industry standards for some time, but it’s becoming much more than that. In fact, according to a survey conducted by ETQ in early 2020, two-thirds of organizations are moving away from quality as merely an operational compliance issue and treating it as a strategic business initiative. It’s moving away from a mere reporting and documentation tool, to a game changer that proactively identifies problems before they can impact the business.  

For example, a leading life sciences firm has standardized its use of automated quality management across the organization to fulfill its high commitment to quality across its consumer health products, medical devices and pharmaceutical segments, including thousands of products and operations in 60 countries. Thanks to its digital transformation, it has been able to unify quality processes, more accurately capture and share critical quality data and better address and rectify customer complaints.

In addition, the global leader in light engine technology, including LEDs and automotive lighting products, turned to a QMS to address supplier quality management. By automating its quality function it was able to house all of its supplier and parts data, as well as more easily perform incoming inspections on parts delivered from its suppliers. The automated system lets it know how many pieces it needs to inspect from supplier records and where it needs to have corrective action taken. It also has innovated a new quality application, which enables more collaborative continuous improvement. Within its quality system, it created a centralized location for employee input on ideas and programs for continuous improvement across the company. Employees earn and spend points based on their suggestions and the company awards individuals for the best ideas that lead to genuine improvement. 

Automating quality is critical to effective management of supplier and parts data and performing incoming inspections. Source: iStock


What’s Driving The New Era In Digital-First Quality?

While a digital-first approach to quality has been gaining speed for several years now, new trends are elevating its role in the organization and enabling it to become a more strategic business driver across all roles. Consider the following four trends.

  1. Advances in AI and analytics. It’s projected that spending on AI software will top $125B by 2025 as organizations weave AI and machine learning tools into their business processes. Next generation quality management systems will incorporate machine learning and analytics seamlessly into their functions so that users can capitalize on the sheer volume of data generated and captured in a QMS. Based on advanced algorithms, new QMS systems will be able to not only prompt processes to resolve customer complaints, but identify potential areas of concern so that problems are addressed even before they occur. For example, AI-driven systems will be able to identify patterns in customer inbound calls and suggest extra customer attention; or a QMS can help identify products likely to be defective on the manufacturing line before the defect impacts all production. In addition, machine learning algorithms can identify anomalies in the system, so incorrect information can be investigated or weeded out.  

    The data in a QMS provides the perfect fuel for AI and predictive analytics, helping to shed insights that can inform better quality decisions seamlessly within the system. We can expect intelligent quality management systems to quickly gain traction, not only supporting QMS functions, but supporting the decisions made by humans. 

  2. Shift to the Cloud. As the rise of remote work during the past year has proven, all business applications must be accessible on any device in the world, at any time. Cloud-based access to quality applications is becoming a requirement for companies in all industries. Even the most regulated of industries are moving their data center operations to the cloud, and advances in cloud computing are enabling more flexible quality management as a result. Advanced quality software is allowing companies to take advantage of cloud-native technologies such as distributed computing and containerization, to drive high performance, data visibility and massive adaptability to achieve specific business goals. 

    According to Rick Villars of IDC in a recent CRN article, “by the end of 2021, most enterprises will put a mechanism in place to accelerate their shift to cloud-centric digital infrastructure and application services twice as fast as before the pandemic; and spending on cloud services, the hardware and software underpinning cloud services, and professional and managed services opportunities around cloud services will surpass $1 trillion in 2024.”

  3. Increasing manufacturing, product complexity. From Consumer Packaged Goods (CPG) firms to automotive and food & beverage, companies must work to address increasing sophistication of products – often assembled in various locations around the world, with a plethora of customized options and new product iterations that are made on a frequent basis. 

    These factors can create a perfect storm for quality issues. The incidents of foodborne disease, auto parts recalls or contaminated therapeutics are on the rise. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that one in six Americans get sick from contaminated foods or beverages each year, and 3,000 die. And, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that foodborne illnesses cost more than $15.6 billion each year.

    New digital food safety management systems can make it possible for companies of any size—even small manufacturers with limited resources—to not only comply with regulatory FDA guidelines, but also connect the dots between all mission-critical processes with a large impact on food safety, from document management to employee training to corrective action and risk management, among others.

  4. Acceleration of digital transformation post-COVID-19. The pandemic put many organizations into crisis-mode, and caused them to put their digital transformation initiatives on the back burner. Yet, as we begin to emerge, they are realizing the benefits of digitalization and looking to revisit their strategic initiatives. In fact, McKinsey estimates the pandemic has fueled a three- to four-year acceleration of companies adopting digital technologies to support their customer and supply chain interactions. 

    An effective digital quality strategy can serve as a catalyst for digital transformation, bridging the gap between quality operations and the business, and expanding quality management to all stakeholders. This creates unparalleled quality alignment, clear visibility and unprecedented productivity, essential to ensuring the success of digital transformation. 

Organizations now realize that the complexity of today’s products, the competitive climate, and increasing regulatory environment make a digital-first mindset no longer only a differentiator, but a business necessity. And, we’ve only just begun to tap the possibilities created by advances in AI, analytics, the cloud and modern software infrastructure. Powerful technology, coupled with human ingenuity, hold the key to true quality transformation. 

Morgan Palmer, CTO, ETQ, has been at the forefront of quality management technology for more than 20 years. As the technical architect for ETQ, he drives innovation across the company’s product line to build and enhance quality applications that drive clear business value.