Creating a manufacturing world without product recalls

Anurag Garg Profile picture for user Anurag Garg December 8, 2020
Is it possible to eradicate product recalls and remove waste in the manufacturing supply chain? Anurag Garg of Plex Systems talks through the steps to proactively prevent recalls

Maximum quality concept - quality level meter © Sashkin - Shutterstock
(© Sashkin - Shutterstock)

The US had 241 light vehicle recalls in 2018, which means one out of every five cars on the road had an active recall — the highest in US history. While we tout improved manufacturing quality and safety standards, that statistic terrifies me when I think about being on the road with my family! And it's not just our cars suffering from quality issues. Just one year later, the United States Department of Agriculture reported 124 US food safety recalls, resulting in 20 million pounds of food being pulled off shelves. Can you imagine how many hungry mouths 20 million pounds of food can feed? Instead, we're forced to throw this food away because production quality wasn't maintained.

While digital transformation can increase efficiency and effectiveness through improved processes, increased production throughput cannot be the only metric by which we measure success. Digital transformation in manufacturing must also play a critical part in improving quality — especially when we're still operating in a world where records are being set when it comes to the number of safety recalls. 

Imagine if product recalls didn't have to happen. What if manufacturers could improve their quality to the point where, within minutes of a quality deviation is detected, all affected parts are immediately pulled from the production line or shipping dock? What if quality and traceability reporting was instantaneous, what if third-party audits didn't have to be all consuming as they are today, and what if manufacturers could do all of this while growing their top and bottom lines? The good news is that forward-thinking manufacturers are already managing quality processes in real-time to significantly reduces their recall risk exposure. The bad news is that there is no way to achieve this kind of control on modern manufacturing without the right digitizing tools and manufacturing culture in place. 

How do you reduce recall risk?

Let's start with what a recall is. Quality recalls, in my experience, are the crescendo to upstream manufacturing problems and loss of manufacturing control. In other words, tracing back a product quality or safety recall, one will usually find missed red flags and poor (or untracked) KPIs in the manufacturing process — low first-pass yield, high cost of quality, low employee retention, high scrap, long audit completion times, etc. These problems, when left unaddressed, eventually lead to loss of quality control, requiring external intervention, aka a product recall. Manufacturers that find themselves nodding to any of the poor KPIs highlighted above need to be concerned — they're likely at risk for a recall at some point in time, especially if the issue is overlooked and action is not taken.

The process of transforming manufacturing operations to improve quality outcomes cannot be expected to be a step function, but instead needs to follow a continuous improvement cycle. Simply adopting new tools is not enough to get to a repeatable and predictable quality outcome — the tools have to support your ability to drive a data-driven experimental and iterative approach to improving your processes (and transform culture). 

The Deming cycle — Plan, Do, Check, Act — offers a good and time-tested framework to driving continuous improvement and yield repeatable and predictable results. This four-step program enables manufacturers to continually improve processes; consider it the first step to proactively prevent a recall from occurring in your business. 

Let's break down each step. 


The old adage goes, "failing to plan is planning to fail"… so no surprises this is the first step. Good planning is foundational to success and helps to ensure you and your stakeholders know exactly what you're doing and how you're doing it. In the case of manufacturing quality, that translates into ensuring you and all your stakeholders are aligned and operate from a single source of truth. This includes things like ensuring digital control plans in place to track, measure, and analyze quality control processes, ensuring PPAPs (Production Part Approval Processes) are well documented and electronically shared with suppliers in order to provide real-time data access to data and changes, and that process FMEAs are utilized to detect failures early. When in place, these planning measures lay the groundwork for continuous improvement.

Take, for example, Plex metal stamping customer G&W Products. G&W invested time and resources into their manufacturing planning process because quality could not be considered an afterthought. By planning quality upfront in the manufacturing process, G&W was able to reduce inventory on-hand by 25%, improve on-time delivery performance from mid-80% to 98%, and reduce error to 176 PPM (parts per million). In other words, G&W saw better than world class quality ratings with only 176 bad quality parts out of every million parts. 


Once a plan is in place, the next step is to act on the plan, or Do. What are the set of activities and behaviors you're going to encourage within your manufacturing operation to ensure your team can follow the plan? You must be able to inspect and document part quality with in-process digital check checks at every manufacturing step, to ensure products meet requirements throughout the manufacturing process. Leveraging SPC (statistical process control) takes this one step further to better define process tolerances and control limits, based on a data-driven understand of factors that impact output quality. Not only does this help identify and catch potential failures early, this also helps document and track quality for every single part being produced so you have accurate traceability data. 

Take for example Plex customer A&K Finishing. Making quality checksheets core to their manufacturing culture helped them reduce scrap by 50%, drive 100% revenue growth in a year, and achieve nearly 100% inventory accuracy!


The plan is built, the behaviors and activities are defined, and now you're tracking a lot of data from in-process quality checks. The next step is to put the data to use to validate your manufacturing process. This entails making sure the data is stored where it's easily accessible to everyone who needs it — this is why it's important to store the data digitally! Leveraging data for process validation (ie, tracking for compliance, tracking deviations and preparing for audits) needs to become a part of the manufacturing culture on shop floors, and the crux of this step is the ability to store and retrieve data in a paperless manner. A digital record (vs a paper record) significantly simplifies data retrieval, alerting, and report generation for all validation, compliance, and certification activities, saving valuable time and resources for more innovative activities. 

For example, Motus Integrated Technologies, a tier-one automotive supplier of interior components and products and a Plex customer, achieved significant benefits by eliminating paper processes as part of their quality management program. They reduced reporting delays from 12-16 hours to zero, thanks to the digital tracking of all their shop floor data. As a result of the Motus team eliminating an error-prone, paper-based data capture process, the quality consistency across their seven plants located in the US, Mexico, Germany and Japan, Motus received two consecutive General Motors Supplier of the Year Awards.


The first three steps of the program should drive improvement on key metrics that were targeted during the ‘Plan' phase. The last step is to learn and ‘Act' towards the next cycle (remember we're talking about a continuous improvement cycle, not a step function). This is the part where you use the data to drive a culture of continuous improvement and promote a quality-centric environment. Look for where additional gaps in manufacturing or quality efficiency may exist and plan the next set of activities and behaviors to institute. Every small change adds up to a larger overall outcome over several cycles. Here, leveraging data analytics technologies and problem control methodologies will help drive towards ‘actionable insights' in planning the next PDCA cycle, and resolve quality issues when they do come up. 

For additional examples of companies that have instituted forward thinking Quality programs, see Shanks Extract's success in getting to zero-prep-time for quality audits (down from 2-3 weeks), and Aaron Thomas that conducts mock recalls to test the resiliency of their processes (it now takes them seven minutes to execute a mock recall!!)

Unfortunately, many manufacturers still use document-based processes to manage quality — the lift to implement full quality systems usually requiring large and complex enterprise software deployments. The scary part is that these manufacturers continue to see loss of control of their manufacturing processes, and we continue to set records for quality and safety recalls. In fact, the inefficiencies around manually implementing documents that are critical for quality operations cannot be understated.

A world without recalls — a critical outcome of the Smart Manufacturing movement — is however within reach. The key is to think of this as a continuous improvement process instead of a step function, get the right people involved, and start somewhere. Everyone can collect data, but manufacturers need to ensure they're implementing the right tools that support long term data contextualization and the enablement of quality focused culture and behavior on manufacturing floors.

Safety and sustainability… isn't that what all of us want? Maybe that's a topic for a future blog.

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