Data You Can Rely On: How the IoT Transforms Product Reliability

How many spares should be ordered? How will warranty claims impact the balance sheet? What is the optimal time to preventively replace parts to avoid downtime? All of these are common business questions that require an accurate view of the reliability of a product to determine the proper answer. 

Currently, most companies turn to handbooks to determine the reliability of a new design. However, modeling reliability based on a list of parts will not predict failures due to the interactions between subsystems, manufacturing defects, counterfeit parts, early wear out, or unanticipated use of the product -- to name a few examples. 

Field data can identify all of these types of failures, but most organizations do not have the mechanisms or resources to capture it.  This can be due to supply chains that distance a manufacturer from the end-user, high costs of embedding sensors in devices, and incomplete data entry by technicians during repairs. The effort and cost associated with capturing field reliability data has been too prohibitive to be implemented in many organizations. Consequently, organizations lack the visibility into true, field-level reliability that they need to design, manufacture and service more reliable products.

The Internet of Things (IoT) changes the entire nature of data collection. The advent of smart, connected products eliminates current barriers and expands the factors that can be tracked in the field. IoT can overcome current limitations for data collection, allowing companies to monitor products in the field by embedding sensors in their products in a cost-effective way. These sensors will transmit data directly to the manufacturer in real-time and give organizations access to operational data for all of their units in the field, gathering usage time, environmental conditions, stresses, failure codes, and other metrics.  

This data will allow reliability, design, manufacturing, and maintenance engineers to develop a much more accurate view of a product’s true quality and reliability in operation. Failure trends, safety issues, and product usage outside of the original intent can be identified much earlier in a product’s life in the field.  Not only will organizations have access to data more frequently than they did before, but new types of reliability analyses will now be possible. Where once engineers only had evidence of specific failures, they will now have data describing the operating conditions leading up to failures. This provides a rich new data stream that will facilitate specific condition-based failure analysis -- creating much more accurate identification of why products fail. 

What value does more precise, complete and faster reliability data provide an organization?  A global electronics manufacturer found that faster, more complete reliability data could significantly reduce its time-to-market for new products, spare part inventories, customer help desk calls, and warranty costs.  This enhanced its customer satisfaction and the company’s reputation for quality in the marketplace.

This same company reviewed their warranty return costs and found excessive failures of a particular part. After months of investigation, the root cause was found to be the product location: Certain large cities had higher dust and smog levels which caused the electronics to run warmer than expected. The elevated temperature was causing the part to fail much earlier than expected. Smart, connected products would have provided the relevant data faster – making it possible for the trend to be identified before warranty costs ballooned, or even preventing the failure from happening in the first place. 

To take advantage of smart, connected products for reliability data, organizations should:

  • Identify the appropriate type and number of sensors needed for products 

  • Develop a process for capturing the data from systems in the field and invest in the technology to both manage the data and facilitate its analysis for use by all relevant stakeholders

  • Educate the organization on the availability of the data and ensure that the product development process adopts the new paradigm 

More complete and real-time reliability data allows companies to make faster, better informed decisions related to product design, supply chain, maintenance, and warranty issues. Current processes and models are good, but even when fully implemented, they do not provide the accuracy and insight that smart, connected products do. The IoT opens up a vast amount of precise operational data to organizations who once could only dream of having a complete picture of their customers’ experience with their products and greater control over their product quality and reliability. 

Be sure to read the PTC LNS Research Report to learn how to leverage the Internet of Things to improve product quality.