Maintaining consistent product quality is a challenge most manufacturers face. Defective products are costly: they waste materials and labor and risk damaging the brand. Six Sigma is a well-established method of eliminating errors and maintaining consistent standards. Coupled with next-generation digital manufacturing technologies, it promises dramatic improvements: increased efficiency, accuracy, and cash flow along with lower operational costs. In today’s globally competitive marketplace, that’s an offer manufacturers can’t afford to ignore.
What is Six Sigma?
Six Sigma is data-driven and looks to statistical methodology to drive continuous improvement. A set of management tools help to identify and remove the cause of product defects, in particular, minimizing variability in the manufacturing process on the basis that variability increases the likelihood of defects. The aim is to improve the quality of outputs by improving the process – a Six Sigma process should result in 99.99966% of products completely free of defects. It's been around since 1980 and count some of the world’s biggest and best-known manufacturers among its disciples.
Six Sigma can also be seen as a measure of process performance. According to the methodology, traditional organizations have a sigma level of two or three – they accept up to around 300,000 defects per million ‘opportunities’. Working through the principles and phases to achieve a sigma level of six means a mistake occurs just 3.4 times out of a million.
Six Sigma principles
There are five core Six Sigma principles designed to shape and direct process improvements:
- Focus on the customer: What determines quality from the perspective of the customer or the market? Any improvement should be founded on delivering benefit to the customer.
- Understand the value stream: Map the steps in current processes to understand where the waste is. Gather data on the specific problems you find and focus on those.
- Remove waste and variation: Make changes to eliminate deviation or variability from standard processes, which in turn will remove defects. Streamline processes as far as possible and remove bottlenecks.
- Engage and equip the people involved: The whole team has a contribution to make, but they need to understand Six Sigma principles and methodologies.
- Be flexible and responsive: Processes that are faulty or inefficient need to be removed, calling for a culture (and people) that can adapt to change regularly.
Transforming Six Sigma
While manufacturers have been using Six Sigma principles to improve quality for decades, digital manufacturing
technologies are giving firms the opportunity to significantly increase their efficiency gains. In fact, according to one study, a digital approach to Six Sigma can double the cost savings it brings.
The fundamental building block of Six Sigma is a five-phase framework: Define, Measure, Analyze, Improve and Control, or DMAIC. Harnessing the power of the industrial internet of things
(IIoT) can add value at every phase.
- IIoT data models encompass people, processes, and assets, offering advanced data and analytics to establish problems, bottlenecks, and hold-ups in existing processes.
- Data can be analyzed, displayed, and modeled at the touch of a button.
- Predictive analytics and big data also have potential to open entirely new paths to solve process problems, offering the opportunity to visualize products and production from new perspectives.
- Predictive analytics and machine learning can both be harnessed to produce better products more consistently. Digital solutions and robotic process automation offer a new level of precision, reducing variation and defects, as well as offering potential to make huge in-roads in the length of time processes take.
- Augmented reality speeds up employee training and increases information retention, helping reduce the human factors that contribute to defects.
- Enhanced communication and visibility allow everyone in the value chain to see what is happening where, improving process flows. IIoT also enables sophisticated and widespread collaboration, involving all stakeholders in process improvements.
- The real-time nature of digital data tools also means that production can be monitored continuously, allowing improvements to be reviewed and refined until they are perfect.
For more detailed analysis of how digital solutions have the power to turbocharge Six Sigma gains, read PTC’s Improving Continuous Improvement eBook.
Six Sigma Principles in the Digital Age
Continuous improvement is a fundamental part of manufacturing today. Companies that don’t keep evolving will soon find they’ve fallen behind. And nowhere is that truer than when it comes to quality: inferior products cost time and money, and damage reputations. Six Sigma principles are a must for manufacturers that want to keep pace and remain competitive. They’re at their very best when combined with cutting edge digital manufacturing solutions.
With a promise to deliver more dramatic improvements, more quickly, it’s no surprise that industry leaders are increasingly looking to digital Six Sigma to keep them not just in but ahead of the game.