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Root Cause Analysis: The Key to Improving Design and Reducing Support Costs

By Steve Bair

Customer satisfaction with original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts and products stems from a combination of overall reliability and a low total cost of ownership. Failures of products under warranty are costly for both the end-user and the OEM, as users incur significant costs in downtime while OEMs spend time and money putting technicians into the field to repair products that were expected to function throughout the warranty period.

Understanding why products and parts fail — as well as the rate of failure — can help OEMs improve designs and make incremental changes that increase product longevity, reduce failure rates and improve customer satisfaction. Comprehensive, unbiased root cause analysis provides the data, processes and practices to protect you from costly warranty repairs — especially those that might be the responsibility of contract manufacturers (CMs) and original design manufacturers (ODMs).

Root Cause Analysis Requires a Comprehensive View

Diagnosing the root cause of failure starts with understanding the interconnected systems, processes and teams behind the product’s design, production and delivery. Technical malfunctions aren’t always linked directly to the hardware, firmware or operating systems involved, which is why an unbiased, third-party root cause analysis process also uncovers issues across all functions and conditions.

Initial troubleshooting looks at the issue that caused a system failure, and error logs provide cursory data on the how, where and why a system is malfunctioning. While troubleshooting is an important aspect of warranty service and can lead to fast resolution and improved customer experience, deeper analysis is required to determine the root cause of the issue. Systemic issues can be linked to many factors, including component manufacturing, system design and parts integration. Additionally, manufactured products are typically created under ideal conditions using new or tested, refurbished parts. Once a part or product is installed at a customer site, circumstances — including extreme environmental conditions; degradation of parts, components and connection points; unintentional user errors; and overuse — can all contribute to a system failure.

An extensive root cause analysis — with input from the OEM and any related ODMs or CMs on troubleshooting and testing approaches — can identify breaking points and determine whether issues are systemic across a product or manufacturing lot. By asking comprehensive questions, gathering and collating data and presenting an unbiased appraisal of the issues discovered, a root cause analysis team can identify trends and practices that contribute to failures that occur within the warranty period.

The data gathered during the analysis process is a valuable source for cross-referencing issues, accelerating the time to resolution and improving future designs. A thorough root cause analysis includes questions about the failure itself and also considers many tangential factors. Some data points gathered beyond the surface-level analysis may stem from questions around:

  • Operating environment: An analysis of environmental issues, including temperature, humidity levels and altitude, can draw parallels between failures for parts operating in similar conditions. These types of conditions can be simulated in a lab to reproduce the issue in non-malfunctioning units. However, other environmental extremes, including shock, vibration and radiation levels, can be difficult to simulate in a lab. Maintaining a database of failures across a variety of extreme operating conditions can help you improve product documentation and specify warranty conditions based on known failures.
  • Packing and shipping: If a product routinely fails, the root cause could be related to packing and shipping. Sensitive components that aren’t properly static wrapped or are wrapped in insufficient protective materials could suffer stress fractures or undetectable, internal breaks during the shipping process. Often, shipping issues can be remedied by fixing the packing process or altering the shipping instructions. However, these issues can also lead to design analysis and future improvements to make parts less susceptible to stress fractures that result from shipping and handling.
  • Installation errors: Inspecting the installation process can help determine whether the part or product was installed according to specifications. If a product is routinely installed incorrectly, there may be an issue with documentation or installation technician training. Resolving these types of issues can be a low-cost, high-value fix that extends the life of a product without making costly changes to manufacturing or design.
  • Product misuse: If a product is used in a capacity beyond its intended function, it can and should void the user’s warranty. By asking pointed questions about use, a root cause analysis team can save the OEM on repair costs while also determining stress points that can help improve future designs.
  • Third-party or customer repairs: Occasionally, customers attempt to repair a failing part themselves or they have products repaired or altered by third-party repair vendors. In these cases, they most likely void their warranties, but they can also provide insight into customer frustrations with OEM repair services or authorized repair vendor responsiveness.

Future-Proof Your Repairs with Unbiased Root Cause Analysis

Products are typically complex systems that are designed and manufactured by multiple entities. When a system breaks down, each participating entity tends to look at just its individual contribution. ODMs and CMs often lack the big picture visibility needed to resolve a product failure, even if the problem originated in their contributed part or manufacturing process. They may also be less inclined to tie up their resources or delay ongoing work with an OEM’s troubleshooting process. And if there isn’t concrete proof that their systems were a cause of systemic failure, they may be hesitant regarding requests for redesign or replacement of components. If an ODM or CM isn’t receptive to the idea of conducting root cause analysis, the resulting lack of visibility and aversion to absorbing repair costs can result in incomplete failure analysis. The end result then becomes expensive, ineffective repairs and longer downtimes for customers.

Additionally, OEM teams also often lack the resources or end-to-end visibility needed to perform a comprehensive analysis themselves. An experienced, third-party root cause analysis partner can act as a bridge between the end-customer, OEM, ODMs and CMs, investigating the entire scope of a system without preconceptions or conflicting professional goals. Determining whether the problem lies within the supply chain, logistics, manufacturing or design, a neutral root cause analysis process can produce impartial, verifiable data. This information can provide the transparent evidence you need to expedite solutions, reduce costs and maximize the life of your products.

By considering the whole picture and delving deep into a system’s functionality, an unbiased root cause analysis process delivers the comprehensive data to expedite repairs, improve designs, ensure the components last through the warranty period and minimize the chance of future failures. The results are reduced costs and increased customer satisfaction for OEMs.

Achieving a comprehensive root cause analysis can be a time- and resource-consuming process. However, investing in failure analysis leads to improved product design, manufacturing, packing, shipping, documentation and installation. Ultimately, these improvements translate to fewer field repairs and greater customer satisfaction. An unbiased root cause analysis partner can provide the resources you need to complete a comprehensive analysis of issues and achieve better results for both your company and your customers. Look for a partner who not only pinpoints product issues but also works with your company and your associated ODMs and CMs to present an unbiased, holistic account of systemic product failures. With concrete data and deep analysis, you can reduce costs, improve your customer experience and reduce the chances of future problems.

Reach Better Conclusions with an Expert Root Cause Analysis Partner

With decades of technology experience over a wide variety of platforms, Tech Data Global Lifecycle Management (GLM)’s expert repair services can deliver the root cause analysis expertise you need to resolve your system issues quickly and efficiently. GLM’s unbiased, multi-platform–certified engineers go beyond the repair call to dive deep into complex systems and pinpoint the exact cause of systemic failures. Whether it’s time to update or upgrade your manufacturing equipment, improve your designs or refactor your processes and logistics, GLM offers the analysis and feedback you need to make informed decisions.

Contact GLM today to learn more about providing the best possible experience for your customers and reducing the overall costs of ownership with GLM’s root cause analysis techniques and repair services.

About the author

Steve Bair has been with Tech Data for 22 years and currently serves as the Director of Solution Architecture for the Global Program Management Office (GPMO) for Global Lifecycle Management (GLM).  As part of the GPMO, Steve leads a team of Solution Architects focused on the development of product lifecycle solutions for complex, global engagements. His previous experience includes leadership in a variety of product management, engineering and new program introduction roles.

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