Failure to Explore Failure

Did you hear about the forest fire in South Washington caused by a diesel particulate filter (DPF) in late 2011, but was still under investigation? Well, it turns out that the DPF was indeed the culprit and actually adds danger to already hazardous situations.

An article by DieselNet on October 7, 2011 outlines the situation and its massive damage: “The fire started on September 7, 2011, and burned southeast through forested canyons and flat areas with dry grasses. The fire—mapped to cover an area of 3,600 acres (1,460 ha)—destroyed more than 100 structures, including 29 residences.” It’s no wonder that the supplier for this product, Cleaire, was hit with sanctions and was ordered to investigate the safety of their product. Cleaire wasn’t actually the manufacturer of the metallic DPF that failed, Detroit Diesel was. Emphasis on the word “was.”

Detroit Filters, a department in Detroit Diesel, was solely designed to manufacture metallic DPFs for after-market emissions systems. Millions of dollars were put into developing the product parameters and the manufacturing process for this hazardous product. The department shut down last Summer as a result of the effects the fire had on their main customer. However, there was a glimmer of hope that business would pick up again after the whole fire scare blows over and is deemed a fluke. That glimmer of hope was snuffed out by another fire in August of 2012, as mentioned by a second article by DieselNet. This fire was the final dagger that sunk both Cleaire and the hope for Detroit Filters. Cleaire officially shut down permanently as of January 2013.

Obviously, neither company foresaw the circumstances that led to these failures. But why not? Doesn’t engineering involve thorough testing to ensure the product will work and not fail catastrophically in a dangerous way? In fact, it does. Failure Mode Effects Analysis (FMEA) is one method to test the failures of a product and their causes and effects. The idea behind this metallic filter is that it needs virtually no maintenance and will almost literally last forever. I’m sure that much testing was put into verifying benefits of this product, which is probably what justified the investment into producing it. However, FMEA clearly was not adequately performed. Knowing your products potential failure modes and the effects of these failures is key. Failure of a product is one of the leading causes for that product’s cancellation. Foreseeing these effects can prevent millions of dollars of investment loss by either incorporating preventions into the design of the product or by cancelling the project before the process engineering stage begins.

I don’t blame Detroit Diesel for this fault. Filters used to be a separate company, Purem, that resided in the same manufacturing plant as the rest of Detroit Diesel. Diesel was just trying to cash in on the supposed gold mine when they absorbed Purem. Purem was the company that set up the process to manufacture this product. The FMEA fault resides with Purem and Cleaire; both of which will probably be forgotten in a matter of years, if not sooner. Hopefully, the lessons to be learned from this situation will stick much longer.

Test your product for function and verify its effects. Then use the engineering technique, FMEA, to test for its failures, especially for failures that may happen if the product is used as intended. However, some failures of products will happen regardless and may be virtually unpredictable due to a multitude of circumstances that are rare or difficult to foresee. This reality is just another reason to employ lean manufacturing techniques in both the process developing and manufacturing stages. Lean techniques ensure that your manufacturing plant is operating with as little waste as possible, which also means that it is operating at the lowest possible cost. Min-maxing, just-in-time (JIT) production, and 5S are just a few examples of lean principles that will help reduce operating costs. Operating at a low cost means has its obvious benefits for a plant that is up and running, but also consider the benefits for a plant that is shutting down. A min-maxed production line essentially means that it uses the minimum and outputs the maximum for what it uses. If a plant is shutting down a min-maxed production line, it means they are losing the minimum, not just that they were operating at a minimum. Losing as little as possible is just as important to work for as gaining as much as possible. Lean manufacturing helps give you both.

So the moral of the story is this: test your products and prototypes thoroughly for failure using FMEA then practice lean techniques to prevent potential substantial capital investment loss.

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