Though quality inspections are widely practiced before, during and after production across a range of industries, those inspections are not so widely automated. In a recent survey of Automation World readers, almost half of the respondents said that their inspections were mostly manual—less than 10 percent automated. That certainly offers room for automation to be introduced into the quality control (QC) process.
It also offers room for manufacturers to benefit from automation in their inspection processes. Survey respondents who have automated some portion of their QC processes list several beneficial results. More than half (57 percent) point to higher-quality products, with almost 53 percent also citing less waste/rework. Other benefits include improved production throughput (46.6 percent), lower costs (43.9 percent), fewer recalls and regulatory compliance (both 30.7 percent), and improvement in parts supplies (26.3 percent).
And yet automation is not very prevalent in inspection. According to what our readers tell us, nearly 44 percent of them are relying on mostly manual quality inspection. Participation decreases as the automation level rises—about 21 percent automate 10-25 percent of their inspection, less than 16 percent automate 26-50 percent, about 12 percent automate 51-75 percent, and only 7 percent automate close to all of their inspection processes.
The automation picture might not be as dim as all that, though, according to industry experts who point out that automation can enhance quality control without actually being termed “quality automation,” since it is used more broadly across the plant floor.
Some of the new systems that enhance quality might not be described as such, says Ed Potoczak, industry manager at enterprise software provider IQMS. “Many manufacturers rely on the fact that production automation (robotics, custom design process equipment, material handling) itself will assure consistent quality once set up or calibrated,” he says.
Khris Kammer, commercial program manager for global solutions at Rockwell Automation, agrees. “People are not necessarily categorizing these systems as quality solutions; they're more production management solutions,” he says.
Quality control is about more than just inspection, Kammer also emphasizes. It’s about process enforcement and process tracking as well, he says, “making sure that the nominal process is executed properly.”
Are all the steps being followed correctly and consistently? That question is as important as inspecting the finished product, and well-executed process enforcement may actually reduce the need for some quality inspection processes, Kammer says. “Inspection is very important, but the process of building whatever it is you're going to sell is as important,” he says. “Automation allows you to automate that process even if that process includes people.”
Where quality is important
A great majority of our survey respondents (78.5 percent) conduct quality inspections during production, with post-production inspection noted for 72.2 percent. Just over half of respondents (53.7 percent) also said they perform quality inspections before production starts, even as early as the preliminary design phase.
Automation of the production and post-production quality inspection often takes the form of measurement, says Todd Montpas, product manager for information software at Rockwell Automation. This is backed up by our survey results, where measurement tops the list for types of quality inspection automation at 52.2 percent. Vision systems and QC software follow close behind with 43.6 percent each.
Automation moves manufacturers from visual inspection by line operators and QC specialists to automated measurements, Montpas says. “As these devices are getting smarter and the automation pieces and sensors are getting better...we get more accurate data with less human intervention.”
Kammer also notes, and our survey confirms, that investment in quality processes is especially prevalent in heavily regulated industries such as pharmaceutical manufacturing. In fact, regulations play a role in 70.7 percent of our survey respondents’ quality inspection processes.
Does this mean that quality automation is deployed more frequently to avoid fines than to improve output quality and to reduce waste?
Regulations certainly make investments in quality process automation easier to justify, says Michael Schwarz, MES/EMI and batch product marketing manager at Schneider Electric Industrial Software. “Quality stakeholders continue to report a much easier justification to get management approval for investments that can reduce the risk of prosecution vs. being able to justify improvement initiatives by predicting hard ROI facts,” he says.
But that’s not the whole story, Montpas says. “I think the regulated ones are driving investment because it's mandatory, but we're seeing a lot of requests for it in other industries.”
Quality, he and Kammer point out, has become a product differentiator across all industries. “Brand value is primarily driven by what consumers think of the brand,” Kammer says. “Because of that, you don't see too many low-cost suppliers sticking around forever. You either see them turning into a differentiated product supplier or disappearing or getting acquired.”
Not only are quality measurement methods shifting, so are the ways in which production, including quality, is managed, Kammer says. “More and more we are seeing our customers putting together groups that are called manufacturing IT or something like that,” he says, pointing to increased collaboration between IT and OT professionals. “That helps tremendously because if you involve the folks on the floor from the beginning in the discussion about value—why we’re doing it and what we’re trying to achieve—it makes all the difference in the world.”
As an example of what can be achieved with the introduction of IT into the manufacturing process, Don Pearson, chief strategy officer at Inductive Automation, cites data-collecting software as a major driver of quality, including reducing recalls. “What is recall? Recall is you had a pretty big bleep in your quality somewhere along the line because you manufactured something incorrectly on your production line and now you basically have to go backwards and come back to that,” he notes.
Software like Inductive Automation’s Ignition platform can provide an audit trail that allows managers to find and correct faulty processes quickly. Or, better yet, make sure such slips in quality don’t happen in the first place. The software pulls together data from the manufacturing process and flags potential problems before they result in recalls, Pearson says. “Bringing all that data into context allows you to have the information quicker from wherever it came from in the enterprise to mitigate those circumstances that relate to large recalls,” he says. “I do believe that that's where you say quality is a broader discussion.”
In fact, MES and/or track-and-trace software has been deployed by more than 20 percent of our survey respondents. Investments in MES technology have been increasing the past few years, Schwarz notes, in part to better manage quality through automated recordkeeping. “It has contributed to our customers’ quality improvements, due to enforcement of product and process specifications, which reduces quality losses and nonconformance,” he says.
Pearson focuses squarely on the Internet of Things as the future of quality automation. “When you start bringing in information from sensors throughout the entire enterprise—whether that's field devices for oil and gas or water, or it has to do with broad information from a plant floor—you end up in a situation where all of that data can be brought in and impact organizations in terms of the quality,” he says.
The future of quality, it seems, is indeed more automated. But that automation may increasingly come from technologies that span the enterprise, blurring the lines between quality and other production processes.