Cost and Quality in Today’s Electronics


Click here to enlarge image

Last Christmas we read reports of jammed mall parking lots yet poor retail sales. The answer to this apparent contradiction is that everyone goes to the mall twice for each electronics device purchased: first to purchase the item, then afterwards to exchange it because it did not work properly. I am completely amazed at the frequency of product failures I experience within weeks of buying a new electronics product. These experiences are not limited to cheap or low-cost products such as cell phones and boom boxes; they cover the entire spectrum including PCs and automobiles.

Apparently, it is not only me that thinks this way. The Wall Street Journal recently had an article about the many electronics problems found in luxury German cars these days. Even $60,000 does not guarantee access to the morning news on your way to work, much less getting you there, since virtually every function in these cars are controlled by electronics. That is bad news for all of us because automotive electronics tend to offer better quality than almost all other electronics manufacturing.

Well, perhaps not all of us. I recently dealt with a small company in Europe who did a brisk business in repairing defective cell phones that were still under warranty. They repaired 2,000 phones daily in their small country. Most of the problems were caused by cold soldered BGAs. This does not come as a surprise to me. The field service personnel that I am most familiar with spend their time going from one electronic plant to the other working on the thermal process in these production lines. They report that the majority of the production lines they see are running out-of-spec production every day.

Why is quality so shoddy these days and why are users accepting this sorry state? One can speculate that the intense pricing pressure, as well as competition to bring the latest and greatest features to the market first, have put undue stress on the manufacturers. A more cynical guess could be that manufacturers are calculating the cost of mediocre quality and deciding it is less than the cost of doing it right in the first place. I honestly do not think that the latter is the case. It should be apparent to all that customers are an unforgiving bunch. If we go back to the automotive industry again, the U.S. auto manufacturers have lost huge market segments to foreign brands due to inferior quality, especially in the '70s and '80s. Over the last decade or so, the quality of U.S. brands has been catching up quickly to their international rivals, but their reputation and sales are much slower to catch up. A company can lose its reputation in a day, but it takes years and even decades to regain the lost image.

The good news in all of this is that there does not have to be a tradeoff between cost and top quality. Many great technologies have been made available to electronics manufacturers recently that allow them to run all but zero-defect production. Optimization software, for example, allows for faster production lines while each product is processed deep in spec, far away from the danger zone. A higher degree of automation can eliminate the inconsistencies and errors of the previous manual routines. Continuous real-time monitoring can catch problems as they happen and immediately shut down the production lines. As a matter of fact, such systems can monitor the process and warn of an out-of-control situation prior to a problem occurring. There are numerous other capabilities available that will move companies towards their Six Sigma goal. While doing so, the manufacturers will experience far less rework, scrap and warranty cost, while improving their productivity and reputation. Good quality is actually cheaper to produce.

We are no longer faced with having to choose between top quality and low cost. New technologies are offering us an opportunity to get the best of both worlds while saving our reputation. The only thing we need now is the will to go there instead of back to the exchange booth.

Bjorn Dahle may be contacted at KIC, 15950 Bernardo Center Dr., Suite E, San Diego, CA 92127; E-mail:[email protected]; Web site:


Easily post a comment below using your Linkedin, Twitter, Google or Facebook account. Comments won't automatically be posted to your social media accounts unless you select to share.