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How to Automate a Quality Control Inspection Process in 5 Steps

Inspection and Audit Management
Quality Control Software

The impact of automation on manufacturing and quality control processes cannot be overstated. The recent advancement of technologies that help eliminate manual labor, improve productivity, and reduce manufacturing errors and inconsistencies at scale has led to well-built yet lower-cost final products benefiting consumers and manufacturers alike.

And because these innovations have largely transitioned from fantasy to reality, even small and midsize companies can now afford to adopt automated solutions for their quality control needs.

But how does a manufacturer actually implement an automation strategy that can successfully replace traditional processes? The exact answer will vary due to any number of variables, from the products they produce to the digital and computing framework underpinning their IT operations. But look past these more individual factors and you’ll find there’s a proven roadmap companies can follow as they work to adopt automated inspection solutions.

We’ve captured the critical steps in this process that will likely apply regardless of industry or product. After reading this guide, you’ll be armed with the knowledge you need to begin implementing the exciting new automation solutions so many manufacturers have already embraced.

Step 1: Analyze Your Current Inspection Process

You can’t get anywhere without knowing where you currently are. Before you begin buying new automation software, pitching large-scale asset acquisitions to the top brass, or making changes on the assembly floor, take a pulse check of your inspection department to get a sense of what is and isn’t working. We recommend doing a SWOT analysis to answer some basic questions pertaining to your current inspection processes, such as:

  • What are common pain points for the inspection and QC teams?
  • What aspects of the inspection process do you believe your team does well? Can these elements be improved even further through automation?
  • Review relevant B2B journals, whitepapers, etc. Are there any automation trends or solutions now in use by or finding favor with industry leaders?
  • What is the track record of your inspection processes? Are most final products within the acceptable manufacturing tolerances?
  • What are typical rejection rates? How are you tracking inspection results?

These and similar questions will paint an honest picture of your current inspection strategy. As you think about this stage of the manufacturing process with a high-level, bird’s-eye view, you’ll be able to better determine how to introduce automation into the system.

Step 2: Review Your IT & Computing Infrastructure

Once you’ve spent some time analyzing your firm’s current quality control operations, take some time to do something similar with the IT department. Why? Because automation is an inherently computer-powered solution. You don’t just plug in one of these inspection tools and sit back – your team will need to confirm it’s talking with the softwares used by other relevant internal stakeholders.

You must also ensure the lines of communication are clear enough that an automated solution can receive real-time updates as running changes are made during production. Data processing volume, software programming requirements, and other critical technical attributes must also be considered.

The digital ecosystem required for all this means your operation must have the necessary computing power and bandwidth prior to the widespread adoption of automated inspection technology. Some manufacturers may have no issue in this regard; others may realize that substantial backend work may need to be done in order to accommodate the solutions they’re interested in.

Learning this prior to purchasing and implementing an automated system can potentially save you from countless headaches and late nights. By building out a digital framework first, you’ll be able to establish an effective closed-loop automation system immediately.

Step 3: Acquire Reference Data

Before beginning to automate anything, you’ll need to confirm you have the correct comprehensive tolerance and specification data for the individual parts to be inspected. This could mean working with suppliers to obtain the exact reference data you need, or working with your firm’s internal machinists and engineers to achieve the same results.

The most important aspect of this step is having a complete data set for every part you plan to inspect. The technologies powering automated quality control rely on comparing the tolerances and measurements of the tested part or product against the specifications fed into the software by the operator. If the part being inspected has tolerances or inconsistencies greater than what’s deemed allowable by the approved specs, it will be rejected. Without the full data, automation tools won’t be able to completely or properly analyze parts.

If you plan to expand your automation efforts, building a pipeline that seamlessly feeds correct reference data to the right equipment is also important. You’ll want to work with your suppliers or engineering and machining teams to create a reliable system to send new or updated parts specifications directly to the relevant software and tools. Many asset tag options are suitable for harsh manufacturing environments, such as work-in-process labels, Teflon™ coated Metalphoto® barcode labels, rigid Metalphoto® tags, and more that will help avoid clunky manual data entry, dated or inaccurate reference data, and costly unplanned stoppages.

Step 4: Start Small

Once the preliminary backend work is complete, it’s time to begin the automation process. But it’s important that you start small, particularly if this is the first time you’re incorporating any kind of automation into your quality control system.

There are several reasons for this. For one, the process can initially be expensive and frustrating if things don’t go as planned. This doesn’t mean adopting the technology isn’t worth considering – it just means being conscious about how, when, and where you begin automating your existing quality control practices.

Should any teething problems arise, you could be looking at issues like production bottlenecks or substantial scrapping and reworking, setbacks that could cause ripple effects cascading throughout the supply chain. In a worst-case scenario, customer order delays and production schedules could result.

Therefore, starting your automation journey by incorporating it into a lower-risk inspection process is recommended. Doing so will allow you to both assess the benefits of automation technology and make any necessary tweaks, adjustments, fixes, or optimizations to the process without causing the same disruption that might result from a larger-scale rollout.

Step 5: Review, Revise, Expand

Think your first foray into automation was a success? Before you break out the champagne, take some time to let everything play out. Note how the technology adapts to challenges like running changes to parts specifications and tighter tolerances. Stress-test the system to ensure it can handle not only your current production output and goals, but also anticipated volume related to future growth or busy seasons. In short, try to break your new automated process in order to discover any possible weak points.

The results of these efforts will inform your next move. If you discover anything of concern in the initial analysis of the results, go back to review, revise, and retest. If all checks out, you can expand your use of automation into other elements of the inspection process.

As you become more familiar with working with automated inspection technologies, you’ll find that many of your early worries will soon fall away. By laying the groundwork for your initial automation efforts – which can often feel like the hardest and most intimidating part of the process – you’re in fact creating a foundation upon which to expand the scope and reach of automated technology within your facility.

From here on out, every succeeding automation effort will become easier than the last – and that you’ll soon wish you had adopted this time-saving, quality-enhancing technology years ago.

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