A Blueprint for Implementing A Comprehensive Reliability Engineering Program
Section 7 of 7: Bringing It All Together
The preceding sections briefly outline some of the basic building blocks of a solid reliability engineering program. These steps are all very helpful in constructing a program that will efficiently gather information, transmit, store, analyze and report on the reliability of an organization's products. The process will not be the same for everyone, of course. The construction or enhancement of a reliability program will by necessity be specially adapted according to the specific needs and structure of the organization. As is the case with many other situations, "form follows function," and the form of the reliability program will follow the function of the organization that is implementing it.
However, it is necessary to make sure that the information that is generated by the reliability program is fed back throughout the organization so that the maximum benefits of the program can be achieved. Instituting a reliability program merely for the sake of having a reliability program will ultimately be of no benefit to anyone. If the reliability program is not feeding back useful information to all of the areas of the organization that need it, it will eventually atrophy and become just a little-utilized enclave of the larger organization. Of course, it is unlikely that an organization that has gone to the trouble of implementing a high-efficiency reliability program will allow such a program to wither and die, but it is important to make sure that the reliability program's benefits reach all possible areas.
In the course of this outline, we have discussed some of the more immediate benefits of having a good reliability program in place. Examples include feeding information back to manufacturing organizations to aid in maximizing the efficiency of the manufacturing process and performing system-level reliability analyses that can benefit the early stages of a development program. There are still other methods of putting reliability information to use in order to aid the organization beyond the obvious uses, such as decreased warranty costs.
One of the most important activities that can be undertaken once a comprehensive reliability program is in place is to be able to model the transition between reliability data generated as a result of in-house testing and reliability data resulting from the performance of products in the field. The causes for this difference in results as well as the differences in the formats of the data have been discussed elsewhere in this article. The ability to bridge the gap between these two information sources lies within the grasp of an organization that has a good reliability program and an adequate amount of data. Although it requires a good deal of data manipulation and mathematical analysis, a model can be developed that will allow for the mapping of in-house reliability data to make accurate predictions of field performance. Obviously, this is a powerful tool that would have an important role in projecting warranty costs for new products and the planning of future programs.
One use of the information that a reliability program provides is the implementation of a reliability growth study. There are numerous reliability growth models that can be used with a variety of types of input data. The diversity of reliability growth models and acceptable input makes this type of modeling very flexible and it can be applied across a number of different functional areas in an organization. For example, the detailed data generated during the development phase of a product can be used with a parametric growth model in order to judge whether the project will meet its reliability goal within the allotted time. Based on the growth model results, more efficient allocation of resources on the project could be implemented based on the expected performance of the product. Similarly, a less complicated non-parametric growth model could be used to assess the change of field reliability as a result of design or manufacturing process changes once the product has been released. On a larger scale, the reliability growth of specific product lines can be modeled over the course of several generations of products in order to estimate the reliability and associated warranty costs of future product lines or projects that have yet to be implemented.
With a good grasp of the reliability of components and systems, it is possible to devise specifications and designs that result in the optimum level of reliability performance. Designing a product with inexpensive and unreliable parts will result in a product with low initial costs, but high support and warranty costs. On the other hand, over-designing a product with costly, highly reliable parts will result in a final product that has low support and warranty costs, but that is prohibitively expensive. Application of information from a reliability engineering program can result in a design that balances out both of these factors, resulting in a design reliability that minimizes the overall cost of the product. Figure 3 gives a graphical representation of this concept.
Figure 3: Balancing initial and post-production costs to determine optimum reliability
The principles and practices of reliability engineering that are applied to an organization's products in the normal course of development and production can also be applied to the products of the competition. In setting up a competitive reliability assessment program, a population of a competitor's products is tested in the same manner as those in-house products in development and production. This can provide valuable information as to the relative strengths and weaknesses of the competitors' products. In cases where the reliability or performance of a competitor's product is superior to those being produced by an organization, the competitor's product can be "reverse engineered" in order to gain insight on how the organization's product can be improved. By understanding the performance of the entire gamut of competitive products, an organization can go a long way towards becoming the best in the field.
In the competitive business world, any edge in helping to find or increase the number of paying customers can result in sizable financial benefits. Given two competing products that are equal in all other respects, the edge belongs to the product that is more reliable. As products become more sophisticated, so do the customers, to the point where the reliability of a product is one of the main considerations a savvy customer takes into account before making a purchase. As a result, more and more advertising includes a reliability slant as part of the sales pitch. From computers to sewing machines, the reliability of the product is increasingly being used to market and sell a variety of products. Some advertisements are now including what were once considered "esoteric" reliability concepts such as MTBF (Mean Time Before Failure) values. With a solid reliability program in place, the information can be used to help sell the product as well as to develop it. This is particularly true if there is data from a competitive assessment program that allows the sales and marketing groups to demonstrate that their product is not only highly reliable but also much more reliable than those of the competition.
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