Sitting behind a desk all day far removed from the manufacturing lines of a large OEM or prime defense contractor has the potential to leave you a bit numb to the reality that the less than glamorous nut or bolt or washer you are quoting is in reality a crucial part of a larger assembly relied upon by the men and women who operate the final product. Similarly, the quality codes that appear on the RFQ you receive are not cumbersome hurdles simply there to make your life more difficult. They are there to ensure that the parts you send to your client are in fact capable of withstanding the rigors, stress, heat, vibrations and other harsh treatment they’ll be subject to in application.
This is the reality for every single business that supplies parts to the aerospace and defense industry. However, all too often in this business it is a race to get the next purchase order and as a result corners are cut and quality is sacrificed. Recently, our Vice President of Sales and I were visiting with one of our clients. While there we had the privilege of touring their campus. This particular customer happens to have one of the most renowned and cutting edge forensic failure analysis labs in the world.
The lab has the ability to perform extensive failure analysis on mechanical components to determine the root cause of exactly why a part failed. The experience was one that I believe everyone who works in our industry should have the opportunity to see firsthand. I was truly inspired by what we witnessed and learned there and I felt compelled to share the experience in the hopes that others may benefit from it as well.
Mounted on the walls of this failure analysis lab were poster-sized photos of downed aircraft. Accompanying the photos were step-by-step root cause analysis and detailed descriptions of precisely what caused the crash or malfunction. In one instance, an aircraft was brought down as a result of a fastener shearing in half and lodged itself in between rotating components – preventing it from rotating and functioning properly. For those less familiar with the term fastener, I am talking about a bolt that appeared similar to something you could find at Lowes or Home Depot. The fastener was no larger than the pinky finger of my 14-month old daughter, but its failure resulted in a catastrophic crash. In this case the failure was not the result of a design issue, but in fact a lack of adherence to quality standards.
As I listened to the engineer explain how and why the fastener failed, I could not stop thinking about the vital importance of having a robust quality management system in place. In this case they uncovered that the failure occurred due to a deviation involving the heat-treat process. In short, there was a severe shortcoming in the fastener manufacturers’ quality management system. This drove home the point that as a distributor of electrical and mechanical components a heightened level of scrutiny is required when we do our contract review and determine whether we can comply with the applicable quality codes. The purchase orders we receive contain more than just boilerplate language. The quality clauses called out in the purchase orders require strict compliance.
As an attorney, part of my in-house counsel duties at Secure Components is to perform contract review to ensure compliance to purchase order quality flow-downs. For this reason I found the experience at the failure analysis lab so rewarding. I was able to see up close the end result of failing to abide by quality codes – and those results were catastrophic.
Conducting contract review is essential to ensure that your product is going to perform to required specification. Seeing the photos of downed aircraft stirred strong emotions in me in terms of just how much important quality compliance is at every level of the supply chain. This is particularly true for the purchase orders we receive. Are chemical and physical test reports required? Does the client need first article inspection? Is trace to the manufacturer sufficient, or are actual manufacturer certifications needed? These are just a few of the examples we see on a daily basis as we work to fill the requirements of our clients.
From a corporate culture perspective it is paramount that quality trump sales. I like to think of our Quality Department as the judicial branch. I say that meaning that Quality is the final and most importantly independent arbiter of what does and does not leave our facility and end up in the hands of our clients. Quality must be shielded from the influence of sales departments, who likely are pushing for parts to ship so they can meet their monthly sales obligations.
In conclusion, I pose this question. How can your firm make certain that the distributor you are working with has the infrastructure in place to comply with your quality codes? Much like the due diligence you would perform in terms of vetting a distributor’s counterfeit avoidance qualifications (checking to see if they are certified to the AS6081 Counterfeit Avoidance Standard or that they’ve been audited and approved by the Defense Logistics Agency under the QTSL program) you should do the same as it relates to quality management. Ask to see their ISO 9001:2008 and EN/JISQ/AS9120:2009 certification. Request a copy of their quality management system. Schedule time to talk with the on-staff and on-site Quality Director. Remember, quality issues are just as dangerous as counterfeit issues.
At the end of the day the most important thing is quality. Yes, it may be more expensive when you require a higher level of quality assurance (e.g., DFAR paperwork or FAI) but the assurance that comes with it is well worth the additional cost. Our clients use these parts in aerospace and defense applications, which are life-critical. There may be margin for error in some commercial applications, but in our world quality trumps everything.
I hope my experience resonates with you and perhaps inspires you to evaluate your quality management system. I know that I came away from the experience of visiting the lab with an appreciation for the work of our quality engineer. Similarly, I feel the weight of importance every single time I review a contract or I’m called on by our AS9120 or AS6081 auditor to explain and show how we adhere to quality flow-downs. Now when I do contract reviews I see more than just words on paper; I see the pictures in the lab of the downed aircraft and I know that I can make a difference in helping to ensure that the pilot safely completes his/her mission and returns home.
I encourage you leave a comment and share your thoughts on this post or hear about your experiences as it relates to this issue.