It is safe to assume that people want quality, but what can engineers, decision-makers, leaders, and enthusiasts learn from it that will truly make a difference in their professional lives? Today is World Quality Day, and as we celebrate this highly symbolic day, we’ve had special events at various offices and fabs around the world but now wanted to go a step further. We thus sat down with Nicolas Yackowlew, Executive Vice President, Product Quality & Reliability at ST, to talk about the lessons he has learned and to discover how quality can be a practical agent of innovation, change, and growth.
The Difference Between Quality, Reliability, and Excellence
To understand how quality can improve a project, we must first ask what the concept means. In the latest edition of Juran’s Quality Handbook1, the author explains that Quality “relates to how well the features of the services or products you produce meet customer needs and thereby provide them satisfaction.” Additionally, it “also means freedom from failures.” Leaders and companies must, therefore, start from these definitions and determine how they fit within their operations. For ST, meeting customer needs and providing satisfaction demands, among many other things, that we qualify new processes, features, and products, while also developing new ways to solve any future problems faster, regardless of its complexity.
Quality in the tech industry is about the immediate steps people take to foster innovations that can improve the lives of OEMs, developers, teams, and the final users. As Nicolas explained:
“True Quality is specific and takes place in the here and now whereas reliability is a process that stretches over long periods. In some cases, customers can only attest to a component’s reliability after a few years or more. Additionally, the ultimate goal of quality and reliability is excellence. Quality is like the stones that leaders place on a path, one initiative at a time. They must be practical, and if done right, they ensure that companies walk toward reliability to ultimately reach excellence.”
Too often, Quality is a meaningless buzzword that meetings or presentations treat as a substitute for excellence, reliability, or success, without really understanding its singularity. Let’s see how to properly apply Quality in an organization through several ST case studies.
Quality Is Thinking Outside the Box, The Silicon Carbide Case Study
Let’s look at the introduction of our Silicon Carbide MOSFETs or SiC diodes in electric cars. An age-old lesson we systematically apply to all our products is the creation of a mission profile at the very beginning of a project. Its content will vary by industry and product, but it remains the way Quality manages expectations and prioritizes specifications. It’s the tool teams can use to define reliability goals and determine how to gain the customer’s satisfaction. It’s about starting a project with the outcome clearly established.
Silicon Carbide was also an original challenge because ST’s Quality faced a unique dilemma. Carmakers require extensive reliability data before adopting a component, but SiC devices are so new that we do not yet have decades of testing and information. Additionally, although SiC was already present in radios in the early 20th century, building a power device for automobiles is only very recently possible thanks to breakthroughs on our production lines. It meant car manufacturers would have to work with a product that was still growing in maturity, which was very original. Nicolas Yackowlew told us how ST solved this issue:
“We worked closely with a car manufacturer that grasped the difficulties inherent to SiC devices, but that was also excited for its advantages. We thus set up a cross functional team in quality, reliability, as well as in product and process development, all in one location. The comprehensive approach eased the learning curve for both parties, allowing us to obtain the proper automotive certifications quickly, to ramp up productions, while enabling the company to ship an electric car with the most advanced traction inverters, power converters, and on-board chargers at the time.”
Quality managers must reach out to customers and partners to resolve unique challenges.
Quality Is Adaptation and Retro-planning, The STM32 and ToF Case Study
One of our most popular mass-market products is the STM32 family of microcontrollers. The ever-increasing portfolio demanded a unique, flexible, and efficient test platform. The Quality department also worked toward the MCU’s reliability (up to 6,000 operating hours for industrial-grade devices), robustness, and ST’s ability to respond rapidly to any potential issues. Recently, ST had to address the rise of machine learning. STM32Cube.AI, which converts a neural network into code for STM32, enables applications that were impossible a few years ago. To smoothly deploy this new technology, Quality used a system that reinforces the correlation between hardware and software maturity to fully comply with product development processes and guarantee the solution’s reliability. It explains, in part, why STM32Cube.AI had a very positive launch and remains highly popular.
Another fascinating case study revolves around our Time of Flight (ToF) sensors. They offer insights into mass-market devices because they are present in popular smartphones, tablets, and mobile devices. Nicolas helped us realize that:
“Some of the manufacturers that use our ToF sensors ship huge volumes at a precise date. Consumer and market expectations are high, so delaying the launch of a smartphone, or causing shortages because of a faulty device can have catastrophic repercussions. The release of a smartphone cannot collapse because of a late or defective ToF sensor, which means that Quality focuses on retro-planning.”
Starting with the end date, the Quality department plans for resources, equipment, proofs-of-concept, prototypes, support staff training, and more to guarantee the timely arrival of the component. One way Quality plans for potential delays is by provisioning resources and materials in parallel, meaning that if one avenue fails, backups are already there to replace it. Retro-planning is an essential operation for Quality leaders.
Quality Is Multidisciplinary and Local, The 5G Case Study
Finally, Nicolas brought our attention to the 5G cellular protocol because it teaches two fundamental principles behind any Quality initiatives within an organization. Now that the standard is final and network providers are starting to deploy it, makers need a way to verify their module’s compliance and features. In this case, the mission profile is a key prerequisite and defining the module’s robustness is great starting point, but customers also need to verify features and performances to ensure a proper user experience by the end-users. The Quality department thus worked with designers, engineers, and applications specialists to focus on design, validation, and verification thanks to test suites. Thinking outside the box meant involving people with different skills and competencies to ensure that the RF correctly took advantage of the benefits inherent to 5G. Quality leaders must work closely with a myriad of disciplines to make their initiatives meaningful.
The second lesson that 5G teaches is that Quality is local. Nicolas’ team quickly understood that the fast-increasing demand in 5G devices also meant that ST ought to offer fast technical support. And the only way to properly do so was to be close to partners and customers. Quality leaders cannot rapidly respond to technical support needs if they are not on the ground, which is why we are launching new local support operations in China and many other regions to answer to the needs of local companies and consumers. Similarly, we also developed a new failure analysis network, which rapidly shares our expertise around the world to quickly respond and potentially fix issues. Quality is meaningful when it is close to the people who interact with a product or service, and when it brings all the resources of a company together.
Tell us how you intend to implement quality in your company or operations in the comments below
- Joseph A. Defeo, Juran’s Quality Handbook: The Complete Guide to Performance Excellence, Seventh Edition, McGraw-Hill Education, 2016 ↩︎