Around two decades ago, a quality management system was established at Fraunhofer IAF. The former head of the institute realized that it would be increasingly important to be able to offer certified research and development services that meet international standards. On their ambitious endeavor to become one of the few certified research facilities in the field of semiconductor technology, the institute joined forces with a local business consultancy. At the start, it was necessary to structure the working processes and to minimize risks. At the same time the internal communication and organization was in need to be professionalized. In order to approach the tasks at hand, internal working groups were formed and guided by the consultants. One of the first successes was the standardization of the IT, which had been decentralized throughout the departments up to that point. The result was a centralized and professional data storage and internal communication throughout the institute.
Since 2001, Fraunhofer IAF applies a quality management system for its research and development services, which is certified by the TÜV Süd Management Service GmbH according to the internationally approved standard of the DIN EN ISO 9001. Therefore, every relevant process of the research and development operations are verifiably defined and documented. The standards are internally and externally audited every year. In this way, Fraunhofer IAF owns an independent and internationally approved certificate that ensures the continuous quality of its work.
Dr. Harald Müller: »Actually, everything that we offer our clients is ›Quality‹. However, considering that we are a non-profit research institute, not our ›products‹ but our research and development services are certified. Nonetheless, we receive requests from industrial clients who would like to receive the prototypes that we develop in small-scale series. An example is ESA, for whom we developed a special high frequency chip. Such a chip with supreme performance data is not freely available or reproducible on the global market. Normally, ESA would require a manufacturer with an aerospace license. In this case, we were able to offer ESA an audit in which they could check how we work, and they had the opportunity to pose distinct specifications for the chips. As a result, Fraunhofer IAF was able to provide the required chips to ESA, even without a formal aerospace license. Where there is no commercial manufacturer, IAF steps into the breach and offers small-scale series with highest functionality.
Our quality management system starts and ends with our clients. This is a very demanding task, because it requires precise understanding of the concrete expectations of every individual customer. Hence, we consult our clients from the start and when every involved party agrees, we receive an order, which we fulfil according to the budget and the schedule – this is Quality.«
Dr. Harald Müller: »First and foremost, it is about trust. We live by the trust and satisfaction of our clients. And if new customers do not know us, the certificate assures them that our internal processes are controlled and surveilled according to industrial standards. Considering that a strategic partnership is often developed over several years, clients are provided with the required security that is necessary for such a long lasting collaboration. Furthermore, not every research facility is certified, even within the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. Nowadays it may not be a unique selling point anymore, but it still helps us to stand out from the crowd.«
Dr. Harald Müller: »This is one of the most difficult tasks. It requires a lot of persuasion, since it seems to be contradictory at first to have the regulated processes of a quality management and at the same time a productive research envireonment that lives by experimentation and change. Nonetheless, dependable circumstantial conditions and a reliable infrastructure are essential for expedient studies. For example, our colleagues are required to maintain their machines, to ensure that they deliver a steady performance according to their specifications. This is in no case a restriction for research, but a guarantee that their ›tools‹ are in a perfect working condition. This is a fundamental requirement not only for industrial plants, but also for research facilities.«
Our quality management system starts and ends with our clients. © Fraunhofer IAF
Dr. Harald Müller: »The ISO 9001 norm prescribes a commissioner who is in charge of the quality management system. It is an administrational task, as I organize the QM appointees of every individual department. They are extremely important, since quality management is a means to its end, yet it should not be felt as if a ›know-it-all‹ orders something, but rather be defined from within, by people who are really involved. Only these workers can fully understand the everyday business and are able to pinpoint, what can be done and what not. Thereby, a certain degree of dissatisfaction with a current situation is always a good indicator for a relevant and reasonable improvement. My job is to organize all that and to make sure that we pass the annual TÜV audit.«
A network of internal auditors and QM appointees is indispensable, in order to ensure a successful quality management at a huge research facility like Fraunhofer IAF. Auditors are specially trained employees of the institute who audit the internal processes at a regular basis in small groups. In the course of their training and their work, they receive a thorough insight into the different departments of the institute.
Dr. Harald Müller: »The regulations of our quality management are not set in stone. We start with our best knowledge and conscience and check if certain adjustments are sensible and appropriate. ›If so‹ they stay; and ›if not‹ they are adjusted until an optimal correspondence between regulations and everyday life is achieved.«
To achieve a self-reflective quality management, an approach like the PDCA cycle is helpful. On the basis of this scheme, adjustments can be evaluated confirming to standards and can be realized when they prove to be useful.
Dr. Harald Müller: »A crucial task of the quality management system is the systemic identification of strategic knowledge that is to be protected and sustained, in order to ensure the excellent services of Fraunhofer IAF for the future. A consistent and thorough data record is essential, as it assures a so called ›traceability‹. This guarantees that the working processes can be evaluated at all times and that every change or malfunction can be traced back. In the end, a good quality management lives from constantly questioning one’s own actions.«