My car and I have irreconcilable differences. I don’t want to embarrass the manufacturer, a major international company, but this car has some serious quality issues.

This got me thinking about quality in manufacturing. The manufacturer of my car, sold over 3 million cars in North America alone last year. If their field failure rate was even 1%, that would be 30,000 North American vehicle owners who, like me, now not only despise their current car, but will never, ever buy from this manufacturer again.

Obviously, this is not a situation that major manufacturer or any product could accept, nor likely afford. The brand damage alone, not to mention the actual repair work, would be staggering. Thus, car manufacturers have been successful in lowering their failure rate – with the notable exception of my car.

Here’s a question: if a major automobile manufacturer can’t accept even a 1% failure rate, how is it that Set Top Box (STB) manufacturers can accept up to 3%? In car manufacturing terms, 3% failure would be nearly 100,000 cars – enough to bring the company down.

So, why is it that so many manufacturers of Android-based STBs continue to suffer from such high failure rates, and what can be done about it?

STB Field Failure: Your Problem, Not the Consumer’s

I can’t fix my crappy car myself. As long as it’s under warranty, fixing it is the manufacturer’s problem. Similarly, field failures for STBs – especially when they’re sold by providers – are the provider’s problem. This is why field failure – when system failures from hardware or software problems cause STBs to become inoperable, requiring replacement – are becoming a serious consideration for service providers in choosing their STBs.

When the STB is provided as part of a service package, the service provider has to bear the replacement costs for defective units. In many cases, the total cost of support calls and the expedited shipment of a replacement STB can be more than the expected profit from subscription fees for the first few years.

But the damage from poor STB quality goes much, much deeper. Having suffered from a defective product, I now despise this specific manufacturer’s products. But unlike car owners, subscribers suffering from STB field failure turn their anger to the service providers, not to STB manufacturers. It is the provider’s brand and service overhead that suffer from poor STB quality, not the STB manufacturer.

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The Solution: Caveat Emptor

Because it is their brand that’s on the line, more and more providers are applying Caveat Emptor to their choice of STB. This legal concept (it means “buyer beware” in Latin) means that a purchaser must “examine, judge, and test a product considered for purchase himself or herself.”

In other words, providers are taking responsibility for the quality of the STBs they provide. They’re demanding that STB manufacturers deliver much lower levels of field failures, and making sure that manufacturing processes are in-line with international standards and best practices.

How can providers and operators ensure this quality – lowering service overhead and protecting their brands? Here’s some questions they should be asking about their STB manufacturers:

Experience

  • Does the STB manufacturer have proven methodologies for designing, testing and manufacturing?
  • Has the manufacturer adopted best practices from embedded systems design?
  • Does the manufacturer have an experienced engineering and operations team?

Track Record

  • Does the manufacturer have years of experience building high-reliability devices in high volumes?
  • Does the partnership model imply joint ownership and accountability?
  • Does the manufacturer have manufacturing procedures to maintain consistent production?

Testing

  • Does the manufacturer offer full testing of production process from beginning to end?
  • Are all elements, including boxes and packaging, tested before shipment?
  • Do these tests include worse case temperature, handling and mechanical affects?
  • Are tests automated testing to reduce human error?

Bill of Materials

  • Does the manufacturer use only high-quality and approved components?
  • Are component changes without formal Engineering approval allowed?
  • Does design planning include cost and impact of components on the total cost?

Monitoring

  • Does the STB manufacturer ensure all procedures are met by physically monitoring design, manufacturing and validation stages?
  • Does the manufacturer use input from previous cycles to improve processes?
  • Are field failures monitored and the lessons applied to production processes?

By taking ownership of STB quality, providers and operators can markedly impact the way end-users perceive their service and brand. At Comigo, we’ve brought down field failures to under 0.2%, while keeping costs competitive. Shouldn’t the industry standard reflect this level of quality?

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