Some importers hire several SQEs (Supplier Quality Engineers) who go from factory to factory in China. A good SQE can make a big difference in both costs and quality.
However, different companies use SQEs for different things. So first let me make a distinction. In some well-structured companies, there are three different roles as below:
- Quality inspectors check products (after they have gone through manufacturing processes)
- Quality auditors check if systems and procedures are effective (and will evaluate the risks corresponding to the loopholes they find)
- Quality engineers need a view of the whole (product issues, loopholes in systems, but also process issues) and drive improvements. Obviously, an "supplier quality engineer" is a quality engineer who only focuses on suppliers' manufacturing operations.
Inspections and audits can easily be subcontracted to quality assurance agencies. Quality engineers, on the other hand, are more difficult to find. Only a few specialized consulting firms, such as ours, have real SQEs on staff.
I would group an SQE's work in three buckets.
1. Following up on production issues
A sequence of steps must be respected here. An SQE who makes shortcuts is guilty of malpractice.
1.1 Ensuring data are collected and shared properly
An SQE needs data about product quality but also about process controls (by the way, a technical understanding of the main manufacturing processes is a big plus).
An SQE usually does not spend hours or days collecting data -- if that's mostly what he/she does, he/she is a glorified inspector! A good SQE gets paid significantly more than an inspector.
Another issue is the "policeman looking for criminals" attitude that inspectors usually adopt. As we'll see below, an SQE needs to work hand in hand with suppliers' staff members. They actually tend to get close -- sometimes too close -- to suppliers. That's why an inspector, rotating among several factories, is necessary if data are to be reliable.
Finally, a supplier quality engineer ensures the feedback loop is in place where necessary. If an inspector finds issues but manufacturing people don't know about it, how can they learn from it and adjust their course?
1.2 Analyzing the data
A good SQE is capable of engaging the manufacturing staff, since they usually know their process better than any external person. He/she is trained in breaking down problems, presenting data in a visual manner, conducting a root cause analysis, and using the 7 basic QC tools.
1.3 Planning countermeasures
At this stage, engaging the manufacturing staff is key. They usually know their processes (including everything specific to their facility) better than anybody else. If they agree on the root cause(s), the countermeasures to those causes are usually obvious.
An SQE who can point to the cost of quality issues will have a great advantage over other SQEs. He/she knows how to get the manufacturing managers' attention! It is a sad truth that Chinese companies don't value quality and reliability for their own sake.
1.4 Following up on the application of countermeasures
An SQE can rely on auditors or inspectors for intermediary verifications. He/she doesn't need to be present on site all the time. But he/she needs to verify the effectiveness (or lack of) of the countermeasures and adjust the course if needed.
In the long term, an SQE might add a few points on the auditors' checklist. That's how they can keep the pressure on suppliers over time -- any regression that increases risks should be detected and reported by an auditor.
2. Special projects, especially for new product developments
An SQE might also spend a lot of time on new suppliers on-boarding and/or on new product developments.
In the auto industry, an SQE often oversees the PPAP (Production Part Approval Process) work done by the supplier's engineers. But the best practice is to have a project manager do this with the support of an SQE, rather than focusing an SQE on this. It can be quite time consuming!
Here are a couple of other activities that can make an SQE quite busy:
- Give an opinion to his/her company's designers and engineers about ways to perform tests/measurements and about applicable tolerances;
- Creating, or reviewing & improving, working documents such as procedures, checklists, forms to fill out, and so on.
3. Prevention of problems
This is another area where a good supplier quality engineer creates a lot of value -- reducing the occurence and severity of quality issues, and thereby cutting costs. I listed a few examples below:
- Conducting a process FMEA (failure mode effect analysis) together with a few manufacturing people;
- Conducting regular process audits to show sources of potential issues (and providing more ideas for the FMEA);
- Training key staff in factories -- if they are willing to learn and the relationship is positive, this is the highest-leverage activity an SQE can do.
Overall, an SQE's job is to improve suppliers' quality. And, as a result, to reduce the costs of quality (scrap, rework, delayed shipments, cancelled orders, etc.)