The Changing Face Of Quality Control In The Era Of Smart Manufacturing

Quality control is a basic must-have component of manufacturing today, but one that often becomes overlooked in the haste to deploy new technologies and launch new products.

Few aspects of the manufacturing process remain untouched by the dramatic changes of smart technology and digitalization strategies — quality control included. What was once an easily defined, compartmentalized field in the industry, has been turned upside down, stretched, and blurred into something vast and complex. As manufacturers struggle to update their overall shop floor processes, they must also take time to update their quality control methods.

This final milestone in the product’s journey from design to delivery sometimes is overlooked during modernization initiatives — leaving a patched, haphazard system to safeguard the product and brand integrity. Such a lackadaisical approach is highly risky in an era when consumers are well armed with social media tools for voicing displeasure over even the smallest of quality infractions. The larger breaches in quality can mean litigation, class action suites and stiff regulatory fines. The stakes are high. Fortunately, software can help overwhelmed workforces automate, standardize and modernize their quality control processes.

Practical tips for modernizing your quality control strategy.

If you haven’t updated your quality control systems as your design, production, finishing, testing and packaging processes have changed, you likely have a large gap between current processes and your methods for ensuring customers receive the product and services they were promised. It’s time to catch up. While simplicity is tempting, just adding a few steps or checkboxes to an outdated process flow is seldom the best approach. A true makeover is likely needed.

1. Create a quality-centric culture: As with most major initiatives, ramping up a heightened quality control effort should start with informing the workforce of the priorities, supporting workflows with appropriate tools and reinforcing desired behavior. These steps are especially valuable in quality control plans which contain an element of subjective evaluation and judgement calls on what is “good enough,” or what small deviations can be allowed to slip by. Modern software solutions can help you establish and reinforce a company culture through the use of collaboration tools, document management and predefined workflows which guide personnel through steps aligning with best practices. Employees can be coached and reminded of their role in quality control through the use of these internal social tools.

2. Leverage sensors and automation technology: Continuous monitoring of the production process — at multiple stages in the manufacturing and assembly process — can spot variations to specifications—such as dimensions, density or weight outside of parameters. Sensors today can monitor such conditions to incredibly minute deviations, helping eliminate quality complaints or defective products that could result in a class action suit costing you millions of dollars. Sensors can also use video technology and visual recognition technology to detect quality issues related to appearance such as color, alignment and image clarity — factors which were challenging to classify in the past.
The use of sensors can also speed the quality control cycles, automating actions, such as collecting and recycling products which don’t meet quality standards. Automation and material handling equipment can separate the imperfect units, determine if they can be reworked based on predefined specifications limits, and route the rejected piece to the proper re-work station, all without delays and gaps in process flows.

3. Build in quality control safeguards: In some industries — such as flight, medicine, and security — quality fluctuation is simply not an option — no matter the financial details. When stakes are high, multiple layers of safeguards are often the best form of defense. Systems of checks and balances and independent cross-checks provide added confidence. Here, too, software solutions, smart sensors and robotic engineering can add a digital guarantee of objectivity and precision.

4. Chose partners you can trust: As the “barriers to entry” seem to diminish, more start-ups, angel-backed entrepreneurs and crowd-sourced partnerships dot the trade landscape. While these innovative companies often bring a fresh perspective, they can also complicate trade and quality control. It is harder to know the integrity of every new start-up. “Newness” doesn’t always mean unreliable, but it does bring uncertainty and risk to the supply chain. When you chose partners in different hemispheres, it can also be harder to monitor activities closely. Deploy software solutions to help you manage long-distance relationships and guarantee visibility.   

5. Manage Traceability: When working with supplier partners, traceability is always important for manufacturers who are quality-conscious, may face recalls or need to track parts and components. This is another area where software tools are extremely valuable. Traceability down to the part level or ingredient level is a challenge — if you are relying on spreadsheets or manual systems. Recalls can be devastating to the bottom line and the brand, but speed of response can help lessen the blow. You need to be able to quickly determine which units and customer orders contain the recalled components.

6. Listen to customers: Your harshest critics are likely to be customers. Be sure to have modern mechanisms in place so that customers can voice quality concerns and provide feedback in a constructive manner. If you provide customers with a system that is managed and responsive, they are less likely to resort to volatile tactics.

Quality control is a basic must-have component of manufacturing today, but one that often becomes overlooked in the haste to deploy new technologies and launch new products. A sound quality control program will not only protect your brand and investment, but will help to bolster relationships with customers. When refining your existing quality control system, remember to take advantage of modern technology, such as sensors and video monitoring, to help you manage the complexity and vast amount of details. The investment will pay off.

Mark Humphlett is Senior Director of Industry and Solution Strategy at Infor.

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