5-Step Process Reliability Engineers Follow To Fix Product Returns


Imagine that your product is being sold and suddenly you start getting returns and angry customers. What do you do? Here’s the 5-step process of how to fix problem products that are being returned. If you’ve gone through a thorough new product introduction process and done adequate reliability testing you hopefully won’t get returns, but if you do, this guidance will help you deal with the problem effectively.


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1. Identify the field issues.

No matter whether you’re a small or large company, someone, probably a reliability engineer or reliability team, will be assigned to investigate product returns.

They first look at them with a triage team who will separate the returned products by type of issue, such as component, manufacturing, design, etc, related issues. The reliability engineer will track the data, such as the daily return rate and the issue per return, on a database and use it for trend analysis so it’s easy to see what kinds of issues are occurring and if they’re an increasing trend. If they are, this data can be used by the engineer to determine which are the most serious and need to be tackled first, such as a potential fire hazard, and also given to management for them to sign off on the required corrective actions.

Finally, the engineer may use the data to create a Pareto analysis that outlines which issues are causing the greatest problems (using the 80/20 rule). (01:46)


Are problems exhibited by returned products that have been in the field usually reliability-related?

The triage team run diagnostics on returned products to find out what the issues are.

Problems in the field commonly are reliability-related and can be caused by a variety of factors, such as inadequate reliability testing during development, and there will almost always be more than one case of the issue.

However, some products are fine when they come in, and it is often the case that these are unwanted gifts or purchases that were simply returned by the customer. In these cases, the product is refurbished and can be resold.

Also, a product sometimes comes in with an isolated problem. If this is not part of a trend the triage team will look at it and try to work out if a customer perhaps dropped the product, for example, causing the problem, and then returned it. On the other hand, if the issue starts occurring more commonly, then it will be flagged and the team may start to consider that it may be a problem to be investigated and not a customer-inflicted issue. (10:17)


2. Determine their root cause/s.

Once the problems have been triaged, it’s time to determine their root causes. Different teams can check returned products to find out if the issue came from their department, for example, production, design, and engineering will need one each. This means that no stone is left unturned when it comes to tracking down why the issue is occurring.

For example, a product’s display might be breaking, perhaps because the product is dropped. But the customer dropping the product may not be the root cause of the issue, it may be that the display sourced for the product was never strong enough for the product’s application and a new, more suitable, display must be found for the product. (15:59)


3. Develop a solution/s.

We have found the root causes of the problem/s, so now we need to develop a corrective action plan (CAP) to fix them now and in the future, so they don’t reoccur. The issue will be assigned to a team who have the root cause analysis and CAP in hand, work on the problem, come up with a solution, and enter all of this data into a spreadsheet along with the date that the solution was devised. (19:46)


4. Implement the solution/s.

This is the most critical, resource-heavy, and expensive part of the process because implementing the solution you have come up with will be a collaborative effort between different teams who are working on redoing certain parts of the product development stages (design, sourcing, prototyping, testing, etc). For example, marketing may be communicating with dissatisfied customers and sending them a replacement product, design may be redesigning the product, engineering may be purchasing new parts, and so on.

Due to the complexity of the redevelopment, a capable manager who can assign tasks to the different teams and oversee the process is a crucial lead and this may often be a reliability or quality engineer. The team need to work on this urgently, to minimize the chances of further returns coming in and the business suffering more reputational damage.

Now that you are implementing a fix, you also need to consider what to do with products that are currently on the market, as if they are sold it may result in more returns coming in with the same issue. So you will need to assess how serious the problem is. Safety issues will probably need for products to stop being sold and to be recalled, whereas a dead pixel in a display may be a small enough issue that many customers may accept or not even notice it, so in these cases you try to check and screen out the products with this issue (or however many are the most serious) before they’re shipped to minimize the chances of any/too many hitting the market before the fixed version replaces them. (22:02)


5. Monitor the results.

Now that you have a fixed product that has been redesigned, redeveloped, tested for reliability and compliance, etc, run a relatively small production run of the new improved product. You may do ORT (ongoing reliability testing), environmental, and UX testing on the first few hundred or thousands to assess how reliable they are now and if the issues you have worked on are indeed fixed. Monitoring of the assembly lines, final QA, final testing, loading and packing, etc, need to take place and if anyone finds problems that relate to the key reliability issues pinpointed when identifying the issues earlier in the process, then something went wrong during the improvement process and further work is required. Finally, you will also monitor the returns closely for the problems that should have been solved and stay in touch with consumers to gauge their feelings. (29:35)


Why this process is important and more cost-effective than doing nothing.

Dealing with product returns could get expensive if you are producing high volumes and/or have complex products, but is the cost of correcting the issues by going through this process more than leaving the problems to manifest themselves once products are in customers’ hands? This is highly unlikely because as soon as your company becomes known for having unreliable products, there is a good chance you lose your market. (34:21)


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