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David Isaacson

Risk Management

Avoiding Modern-Day Vaporware and Other Product Launch Mishaps

Better quality management is required for NPI best practices

Published: Monday, October 10, 2022 - 11:02

In 1982, when asked about the state of the company’s Xenix operating system, a Microsoft engineer reportedly called it “vaporware“ to indicate that the operating system had really not yet materialized. Unfortunately, the term stuck for this and many other premature software launches.

It’s not only software that can go up in smoke before it’s even launched. Everything from automobiles to consumer-packaged goods (CPG) can vaporize because of ineffective rollouts or quality management issues.

Given the critical role of new product introductions (NPIs), it’s somewhat surprising that 44 percent of them fail to meet their criteria for success, according to LNS Research. Global market forces, shorter product life cycles, and increasing product complexity are significant challenges. However, a lack of efficiency and innovation in NPI processes may have even more bearing on success. Consider that most organizations are still in the digital dark ages, with most of them using spreadsheets, shared drives, and email to track and exchange new product information. This can be challenging when a cross-functional, distributed team must work together to select suppliers, manage risks, control costs, and supervise the product life cycle. Without the right collaboration tools and data, visibility into the factors that affect risk, cost, and regulatory compliance is difficult to achieve.

Yet, carefully planned NPIs can uncover potential issues that would either delay product delivery or result in costly recalls, and help to ensure that launches are on track and optimized for widespread acceptance and, ultimately, sales.

Whose job is a successful NPI anyway?

A successful NPI involves the entire cross-functional team of designers, production managers, procurement professionals, and other roles. Ahough the quality management team doesn’t necessarily own the NPI, an effective quality management program with an automated quality management system (QMS) enables integration and collaboration between the many roles and systems. Embedding quality into the NPI processes leads to faster time to market, lower product life cycle costs, and higher product quality.

Taking a cue from Wabtec to better manage new product introductions

Wabtec, a leading global provider of equipment, systems, digital solutions, and value-added services for the freight and transit rail sectors, began experiencing significant product failures in its locomotives that made it out to customers in the field. These failures occurred during “infancy,” or the first 90 days of a locomotive’s life after delivery to customers.

The failures were chronic and cost the business more than $100 million annually. But the company had no insight into what was causing the failures or how to prevent them. It knew part of the issue was dealing with a complex supply chain infrastructure as well as siloed data that couldn’t be shared enterprise-wide. This prevented the company from running systemwide reports or gaining insights into its overall quality management environment.

Wabtec realized it needed to implement a robust supplier quality and NPI process across the full product life cycle, including preproduction. As a first step, Wabtec consolidated multiple legacy quality applications into a single enterprise application to gain a unified view of its quality data, which provided insights to both production staff and business leaders. It also automated its production part approval process (PPAP) and gained tight controls over parts ordering and shipping from thousands of suppliers.

The company was unsure when and where in the process problems occurred because decisions were made on the shop floor and not captured in a centralized system. It soon learned that these data were very powerful for trend analysis, providing earlier prediction of defects and helping to identify compound issues. Furthermore, some nonconformances, whether critical or not to quality, were subjectively and manually entered into the system, which opened the door to human error, took time, and prevented capturing nonconformance data, which is important to informed decision-making.

More effective defect tracking, thanks to centralized data and automated workflows, has helped Wabtec adhere to regulatory standards and frameworks. The company’s total cost of quality has been slashed by approximately 35 percent—which translates into tens of millions of dollars. Most important, delivery of defective products has basically been eliminated through this total quality management approach.

So, in addition to leveraging an automated QMS to connect the dots and gain greater insights to proactively address product issues, below are key best practices for successful NPIs.

Be realistic. For many organizations, early-stage product development is a time of trial and error. It includes steps forward, inevitably leading to steps backward. The key to streamlining early-stage product development is to optimize efforts, learn from mistakes, and adapt to unforeseen challenges. Companies that remove the boundaries between quality management and product development teams can respond to emerging quality and compliance challenges right from the start. That means responding before minor challenges grow into significant problems that set back your progress and waste vital organizational resources.

Stick to the schedule. According to Gartner, 55 percent of all planned product launches actually happen on the planned date. The remainder are usually delayed by at least a month. It’s important to develop a realistic NPI schedule to avoid quality issues because companies that launch products according to their realistic schedules can expect to reach internal revenue targets within one year.

Have a control plan. Control plans reduce the complexity of product quality by allowing companies to easily communicate with their suppliers and share the required inputs and outputs of each stage of the product development process. This may include required GANTT charts and flexible workflows for tracking each step.

Plan for the worst. Leveraging failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) to identify all possible failures in design, manufacturing, or assembly from the conceptual stages of design and throughout the life of the product can help to evaluate potential NPI risks.

Automate preventive controls. On the shop floor, equipment needs regular attention. Ensure employee safety and minimize nonconformances by actively managing equipment maintenance with automated scheduling, notifications, and reporting of any piece of equipment in your manufacturing environment. This includes ensuring machines are properly calibrated and preventive maintenance is performed before there are equipment failures.

The only thing worse than a product that fails to meet critical milestones and earns the dreaded classification of vaporware is a product that launches with defects, recalls, or complete failure. New product introductions that are proactively driven by automated workflows, enterprise-wide data, and actionable insights can prevent these scenarios and result in greater revenue, loyal customers, and a corporate reputation for quality.

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About The Author

David Isaacson’s picture

David Isaacson

David Isaacson is the vice president of product marketing at ETQ. Isaacson focuses on developing market strategies and product positioning for cloud-based solutions.