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Vergent Products - Blog

THE "PAPERLESS" FACTORY - Gimmick or real value? by Tracy Ireland

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vergent Products' prospective clients are often amazed by our paperless factory but always ask, “What is the real value of this and what does this cost me?” It is easy to perceive it as unnecessary overhead but a deeper examination reveals our approach delivers real value to clients through reduced costs, mistake prevention and, most importantly, our ability to exercise extreme discipline with high levels of flexibility.

Costs are reduced because the paperless factory brings all of the information a worker needs right to their work station. It eliminates the need to search for information, ensures the information they are using is accurate and delivers only authorized versions of documents. This system also prevents unauthorized changes and handwritten notations on documents which forces discipline. Our cost to make a change is significantly reduced because documentation is electronically distributed and we are able to deploy those changes immediately.  

The Vergent System integrates multiple functions into a singular dashboard and user interface. This reduces training time for new assemblers and allows us to rapidly add capacity and replicate production lines on the fly to respond faster to client ramps. The system integrates time tracking (shop floor cost accounting); paperless work orders and bill of materials; product serialization, tracking and traceability; equipment maintenance; and training records. This integration enables workers to achieve higher productivity levels because there is one system as opposed to interacting with the myriad of systems required to operate a complex manufacturing system.

This integration also enables mistake prevention - for example: when an assembler checks into a work center to perform a task, their training records can be checked to determine if they are properly trained for the task. If not, the system can withhold the information they would otherwise need to perform the task thereby preventing untrained personnel from doing the work. Quality is improved and mistakes are prevented. Here is a small sample of the potential problems that are prevented:

  • Document and product revision mix-up
  • Un-trained personnel
  • Use of un-calibrated tools and equipment
  • Use of expired or defective lot limited life material
  • Wrong materials (Example: solder alloys, flux)
  • Work Order/Serial number integrity issues
  • Acceptance of manual test measurements out of tolerance

Perhaps the most powerful capability is real-time data collection and collaboration which extends beyond the shop floor. Engineers are notified immediately of defect trends. New product technicians receive immediate feedback on new processes. Supervisors have real time staffing views, factory status, and profit/loss data. This reduces communication overhead an increases velocity. Our production cycle times and speed at which we can solve problems are among the very best.

The most important value is to our clients: Lower costs, better quality, fewer defects, increased flexibility and scalability, and the comfort in knowing Vergent Products is working diligently to prevent mistakes and continuously improve our processes so they don’t need to worry.

Test - Just Another Four Letter Word by Tracy Ireland

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

When it comes to manufacturing a product perhaps nothing is more frustrating and controversial than manufacturing test. The need to test in production is often a result of manufacturing defects, component margins, tolerance stack-ups, design or system integration issues. Most clients view manufacturing test as a necessary evil and some ignore it until the last possible moment at their own peril.

At Vergent Products we prefer a more proactive approach. While we strive to manufacture with zero defects and utilize Automated Optical Inspection with great success we still cannot control the processes of all manufactured components and unknown design margin or system integration issues.

Thinking about test strategy early in the design is very important because if you design a product that is hard to test or requires excessive test the manufacturing cost of this necessary evil escalates quickly and the test coverage can be significantly diminished.

The circuit designer must plan for how the product is tested and how much self-test, diagnostic capability, component isolation, boundary scan, and node access will be designed in. As the design proceeds to layout items such as tooling holes, probe access, probe density, component accessibility, and clearances should be considered.

At some point a decision must be made concerning manufacturing test strategy and platform. There are three popular test options: In-Circuit Test (ICT), Flying Probe, and Functional.

ICT is often a general purpose test platform like HP3070 series or Genrad/Teradyne with a bed of nails fixture. The advantages of ICT include low per-piece cost, exceptional coverage (if designed for test), power-up test for both analog and digital functions, integrated boundary scan, and device programming. The downside is initial cost of test development and dedicated fixtures. ICT can be very cost effective overall for high volume long life products compared to the development costs of a dedicated functional test and the higher per-piece test costs of other options.

Flying probe provides an excellent option for low volume short life products. Programming is often derived from CAD data and there are no fixture costs. Thus, the development cost is low but per-piece cost is often much higher than ICT due to higher test times. Flying probe is very effective at identification of missing, wrong, reversed and defective for two and three pole components. The approach is most effective for manually loaded through-hole assemblies. Some Flying Probe testers also provide for JTAG device programming and boundary scan for IC validation. Flying probe is frequently used to accelerate prototype validation – when turning on a new design it is helpful to have high confidence the assembly was correct and Flying Probe is a low cost means to that end.

Functional Test can cover a very broad range of options from a simple power-on self-test to installation of the assembly into a product and execution of product level tests. This approach often provides the very best coverage and validation but at a high price. Unless the dedicated equipment is automated, the per-piece time tends to be high and the test development time can be significantly higher than ICT or flying probe.

In some cases, like high energy power supplies or products with safety issues, a mixed approach may be in order. For example, you may wish to validate components on Flying Probe before you power-up an assembly in a product based functional tester to prevent potential damage to equipment or expose personnel to an unsafe condition.

It is important to make a test strategy decision early in the design process and Vergent products can help with cost/benefit analysis of the various options while also providing design for test and test development services.

Make No Mistake - 5 Steps to Defect Free by Tracy Ireland

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

You run a tight ship -- No room in your development schedule to debug prototyping mistakes and no slack in production schedules for late deliveries or worse an on-time delivery of defective products. Let’s face it, mistakes and defects kill schedules, cause unplanned costs, and are just plain frustrating. Is it possible to never make a mistake or completely eliminate defects? Probably not completely, but much can be done to prevent them.

First, one must put test and inspection into the correct perspective and decide that reliance alone on detection and correction is futile. The truth is that test and inspection only detect a mistake. In other words – it’s too late, the defect has already occurred. At this point corrective action is required. Regretfully, most approaches to corrective action deal only with the immediate problem -- ie: perhaps a part was assembled wrong and the corrective action is to assemble the part correctly. Unfortunately, this is where most corrective action ends.

The first step to achieving a mistake free environment is to learn from every mistake by asking the deeper question: “What caused this mistake in the first place?” Once the source of the problem is clearly known then a solution that prevents future occurrence is possible. There is no substitute for effective root cause analysis and a commitment to not repeat a mistake.

Second, start with the powerful assumption that the person performing the task wants to do a good job and they cannot just make a mistake. This forces you to think beyond the “operator error” or “humans make mistakes” notions. Consider the antecedents to providing a mistake free environment. Ask questions like: Are there barriers to performing the task correctly? Is the work environment suitable for the task (lighting, space, organization)? Are there frequent interruptions? Is the procedure well documented? Is the person effectively trained? Do the person’s skills match up to the task? We are often quick to blame the performer when the real problem is in the antecedents.

Third, anticipate mistakes and put in place preventative measures by developing and using a process to systematically evaluate work procedures and product designs for mistake potential and severity. A popular and easy to use method is FMEA (Failure Mode and Effect Analysis). FMEA used early in the design of procedures and products has proven very effective in identification of potential failures, their effect, probability, severity and detectability. This process causes one to consider the kinds of problems that can occur, helps prioritize them, and asks what control measures have been or should be put into place proactively to prevent mistakes.

Fourth, minor defects become big ones. A good friend of mine once pointed out the logic of Rosanne Roseannadana of SNL fame who often said “It’s always something, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.” There are problems waiting to happen everywhere and everything is subject to the natural law of entropy. As such, when things deteriorate their potential to become or create defects increases. Consider a machine building widgets that must have a precise dimension. As the machine wears out from use the ability to achieve the tolerance diminishes. Or consider the paint on your car. A minor ding in the paint over time turns to hidden rust and before long you have a major repair. Wouldn’t it be better to correct the wear out or rust out potential before the point of no return? Total Productive Maintenance (TPM) teaches us to be vigilant and look for the indicators of a future defect then act before they become a problem. An approach that corrects minor defects proactively has proven time and again to reduce the “something is going to get you” random nature of defects.

Fifth, manage behaviors. If it is true that structure influences behavior then we might ask: What structures have we put in place to achieve the mistake and defect free behaviors we desire? We must examine our reward systems to ensure we are not rewarding people for taking shortcuts. We need to think about how we hold each other accountable for doing the right thing the right way. There are many good models for behavioral management like Behavioral Safety but unless they are integrated into the culture of your business they will become just another program of the month. Teaching people correct behaviors and providing behavior prompts make a world of difference in attitudes towards defects. For example: Teaching an assembler to count out the number of screws to be assembled, driving them, then asking “do I have any loose screws?” (pun intended) is effective at preventing missing screws when compared to an assembler taking screws directly from a bulk bin. Teaching people to hold each other accountable in a systematic way is also part of the behavioral system – co-workers observing each other’s behaviors and giving safe immediate feedback can be very powerful when the expectations are clear. For example: adopt zero tolerance for improper use of safety equipment and teach people to check each other. These minor changes in behavior have enormous defect reduction potential and can also build great working relationships.

One final note – I am not a fan of discrete ideas and methods. To achieve zero defects, zero accidents, and zero mistakes one must commit to an integrated system of vision, culture, expectations, procedures, personal commitments, mutual accountability, and behaviors.

It is possible to achieve zero defects? Yes. At Vergent Products we have built our reputation on quality. It is not just because we have well trained quality people working as one team but it is because we have made the time and commitment to think differently and work differently. The rewards are in employee retention, low warranty costs, and happy clients.

DFx - a Catalyst for Collaboration and Acceleration by Tracy Ireland

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

 The problem many designers face today is ever increasing product complexity and miniaturization. As the products have become more complex and smaller the manufacturing processes have become more difficult. The dependencies between design and process have become more intense at a time when the industry trend has been increasing separation and distance between them as manufacturing outsourcing continues for good reason. So the question is: How do we fill this gap?

Much has been written about Design for Excellence. There are many good design checklists and articles on design for almost any dimension of product success. The use of checklists for DFx is a necessary good practice but it is not sufficient. In my experience there is simply no substitute for sitting down with a group of experts who live and breathe the various challenges of product realization every day and collaborating, in a structured manner, on the design, manufacturing, usability and service of a product.

The case for embracing DFx is simple – the cost of correction increases exponentially as the product moves through the life cycle.

It is far easier to anticipate and prevent problems early in the product definition and development stages than to discover a problem downstream.

A properly structured and executed DFx practice will expose these potential problems so they can be addressed early.

At Vergent Products we have found that a collaborative approach to DFx works best. The dynamics of a designer sitting down with a group of assemblers to discuss a proposed assembly sequence or a discussion with a warranty technician about past events is very powerful and insightful. The two way exchange of ideas and concerns helps bring design issues to light at a time something can be done to fix them at very little cost. I can’t recall the number of times a product has been introduced that was difficult or near impossible to build. The cost of correction or living with a product like this can be staggering not to mention the delays caused by rework or a hard to build product.

The application of DFx is often not considered because it adds time to the development schedule when clients and investors are anxious to see a prototype or introduce the product to the market. However, while effective DFx will slow you down in the beginning it has a dramatic effect at accelerating new product introduction and manufacturing ramp-up. In the end the product will be faster, better and cheaper with collaborative DFx.