A focus on quality can bring major benefits to a company – but can also throw up a raft of challenges. That’s the conclusion of a survey into manufacturers’ attitudes to quality, conducted by the Professional division of Miele. Over three-quarters of those surveyed said that quality is key to driving business growth, while 30% believe that increasing quality will increase their productivity. Quality can also open doors to new customers, at home and abroad, with over 50% saying that quality is key to ensuring repeat business. As a result, quality is at the very top of many manufacturers’ agendas – often ahead of more traditional markers of success, such as financial performance or market share.

“One bad review can ruin a company’s reputation in an instant”

A major reason in this rise the importance of quality for manufacturers is technology. In today’s connected world, says Sam Bailey, sales and marketing director at Miele, a company’s reputation can be ruined in minutes. “Thanks to the internet, and in particular social media, people can discuss specific brands a lot more freely than ever before,” he explains. “Manufacturers have to be aware of that. One bad review can ruin a company’s reputation in an instant. In turn, a focus on quality can help boost market share: our research has found that a focus on high-quality products will have the biggest impact on a brand’s reputation. The way a product looks, feels and operates to a consumer or business customer will reinforce the brand’s image in their mind. Having a ‘quality’ image will allow the company to grow and become competitive in other markets.”

This is demonstrated in Miele’s research. Around 85% of those surveyed believed that a perceived image of quality helps to drive trust in a brand, while half believe that quality is key to driving repeat business. “Having a large-scale focus on quality is key to attracting new customers, retaining existing ones and guaranteeing future sales, both at home and overseas,” explains Bailey.

“Finding or developing the right skills is a challenge”

However, pressures on manufacturers are hindering manufacturers’ focus on quality, warns Bailey. These will be familiar to the majority of those in industry today: a lack of skills, reticence to innovate and the rise of Industry 4.0.

Miele’s research found that skills are vital to high-quality manufacturing. “While 80% of the respondents said that skilled workers are important component in ensuring quality, a third said that finding or developing those skills was a challenge,” says Bailey. “Many don’t feel like they are getting enough support from institutions like universities or apprenticeships and therefore have to rely on often stretched internal resources to solve their problems and meet their needs.”

Added to this, although the UK can boast the third highest skilled workforce in the world, after Germany and Japan, 44% of the manufacturers surveyed by Miele stated that it was difficult to develop skills amongst their workforce, instead relying on in-house training (42%) to develop skilled personnel rather than apprenticeships (26%) or university (11%).

The research also found that there is a link between a culture of quality and one of innovation. Around a quarter of those asked said that they directly relate the two. “Companies are recognising the importance of innovation, which is good,” explains Bailey. “However, they say they’re struggling to create the next generation of high-quality products. Above that, they are also struggling with other innovations – in the manufacturing process or in marketing, for instance. Ensuring that companies are driving high-quality innovation across all areas of the business is vital.”

“Industry 4.0 brings its own challenges”

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, says Bailey, is causing manufacturers to rethink their entire quality procedures. “The fact that processes are becoming more automated means that manufacturers are having to look at entirely new means of production, and has led to them testing and quantifying quality in an entirely new way; in some cases, they may still be getting to grips with it all. Manufacturers should consider adapting their quality checks as Industry 4.0 becomes more prevalent. You could call it Quality 4.0 – utilising Industry 4.0 technology such as IoT, robotics and so on to automate their quality management. The ideal is to ensure quality with as little human input as possible. That helps any potential issues become both identified and addressed as quickly as possible.”

However, adds Bailey, the ‘human touch’ is still vital to ensuring quality. The vast majority of the manufacturers surveyed by Miele said that people are more important to quality assurance than technology could ever be – as long as the mind-set on the shopfloor is right. “Quality has to become an obsession that is ingrained within every single process and member of staff,” he says. “The whole site has to formulate a culture of quality excellence.”

“Don’t import quality issues onto your site”

Today’s manufacturing site is a multi-national operation. Raw materials and parts will often be sourced from the four corners of the globe – and this can bring real risks to quality. The pressure to source the cheapest materials is countered by the need to source high-quality ones, which brings with it the potential to cause serious issues. The research found that quality in the supply chain is manufacturers’ second biggest concern when sourcing materials, with ethical sourcing down in fourth. This real concern over quality is leading to companies reviewing their quality procedures.

“One of the biggest challenges that manufacturers will face in the future is access to raw materials,” says Bailey. “Establishing where those materials come from and the processes they go through before arriving on-site – and the quality of all that – is vital, and something that must be done before anything gets to the production line. Don’t import quality issues into your site.”

Over a third of the manufacturers surveyed admitted to having had to recall products due to quality issues – many of which will have originated in their supply chain. A similar number (29%) said that a lack of quality, manifested as product defects, was their leading cause of customer complaints. “Manufacturers should apply rigorous checks to their supply chain,” advises Bailey. “Ask for references and accreditations from suppliers to guarantee safe products that are up to the quality standards that both they, and their customers, are looking for.”

“British manufacturing is high-quality”

There’s good news to finish with, however. Almost three- quarters of the manufacturers surveyed agreed that quality is improving in UK manufacturing, and there is a feeling that quality is a key differentiator that sets us apart from the rest. This, says Bailey, is having a positive impact on ‘Brand Britain’ as we enter an uncertain future.

“The perception of British manufacturing abroad is that it is high-quality,” he says. “It’s critical that this is maintained, especially as we look to move into new markets. When discussing the industry with overseas customers, the perceived quality of UK manufacturing is something that will often come up.

“UK manufacturers recognise the importance of delivering product quality but need to ensure that they’re addressing it at every stage of the business if they are to take advantage of the growth opportunities that a focus on quality can provide.”