Increasingly complex production processes and ever-accelerating production rates, make the human obsolete for executing the multifarious lightning-fast inspections necessary to ensure compliance with today’s numerous quality and regulatory requirements. Inspections by human eyes and hands are manufacturing processes of the past. With manual inspection, corrupted products may pass through the entire production process without being discovered until much later. Such a management flaw can put consumers at risk and cause manufacturers enormous recall costs, brand damage, and waste costs.
Automatic inspection processes detect errors at an incomparably higher rate than people can accomplish, bolstering efficiency of production lines. Automated inspections afford reliably repeating inspections. And, they offer precision in capturing performance data, such as rejection rates. These benefits spur quality and conformance improvements that become very significant contributors to customer upgrade and repeat purchase rates, profit margin, and market competitiveness.
Inspections are conducted at so many points along production processes, and by so many interested parties, that it’s dizzying to consider just the number of kinds of tests conducted throughout the manufacturing industry on an average day—from shop inspections, to second and third party stake-holder site inspections, to ISO and government inspections. Inspection costs alone can represent a significant expense. And, increasingly strict quality standards along with ever-accelerating production rate requirements further increase the cost.
On the other hand, cutting corners on inspection costs predictably prove to be a costly error, escalating risks of comparatively high quality control failure rates and nonconformance rates that can jeopardize a manufacturer’s competitiveness. Optimizing inspection systems doesn’t necessarily mean spending more. However, it does mean manufacturers need to get the most for their investment in manufacturing inspection equipment and processes.
From robotics, to medical equipment and supplies, to food production, inspection and testing plans for incorporating inspection equipment are now driving what has become a robustly innovative inspection equipment industry.
Kinds of inspection
A manufacturing test is performed as part of a particular inspection process for PQR, or for any one of myriad in-process purposes. Just listing, much less explaining, all the tests required for manufacturing is a project far beyond the scope of this article. But, here are listed just a small number of industrial tests, to give merely a sense of how vast the range of inspection types is across the manufacturing industry.
- Bend, impact, and tension tests
- Inspection (testing) equipment calibration
- Radiographic tests
- Weld Destructive Testing for WPQ
- Pump, valve, compressor, and pressure vessel inspections
- Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) of equipment under construction
- Annealing Heat Treatment, testing temperature change rates and metal properties
- Corrosion resistance testing
- Magnetic Particle Inspection (MPI)
- Dimensional inspection
- Ultrasonic testing
- Hot working metal properties analysis
- Electromechanical tensile testing of non-ferrous materials
- Surface smoothness test (AARH test)
- Identify breaks or other physical defects on finished products
- Product mass measurement
- Package seal inspection
- Code validations
- Label affixed and positioned validation
- Tamper seal closure tests
- Vision inspection for product conformance and overall packaging integrity
- Container content and fill level measurement
- Food, beverage sorting consistency with packaging
- Product counting
Kinds of inspection equipment
Of course, some inspection technologies can be better investments than others. The challenge is to identify those that can be expected to advance your process improvement and quality objectives, and yield the highest ROI. This is especially true in today’s dynamic environment, in which innovations are so rapidly advancing process capabilities, that state-of-the-art equipment can quickly become obsolete. We have identified a few that appear to have the broadest range of applications across manufacturing, and the greatest overall value in terms of ROI and contribution to branding goals.
1. Barcode scanner
Barcode scanners are used at throughout the supply chain, materials management, production, packaging, warehousing, and shipping, processes, and further at wholesaling and retailing points of sale. Scanners can be linked to materials management systems in order to increment materials inventory counts as products are being produced. As material inventories are depleted, stock counts are updated in real time. Scanners can even interface with database software to confirm a match between a product unit and the barcode assigned to it. Scanners can be used for barcode inspections on:
- Individual items in bottles or cartons
- Pallets for X-ray inspection
- Adhesive printed label sheets for later application
- Inventory tracking lists and paper ledger entries containing barcodes
- Stamped or printed barcodes
Vision inspection system equipment automatically identifies a vast array of quality problems that human inspectors cannot detect with comparable consistently. And, these automated camera processes are increasingly fast and wider ranging in the numbers of tasks a camera can manage. The equipment is advancing to produce ever-higher resolution to capture subtle defects. This reduces rates of false rejections by the automated system. Additionally, a vision inspection system can be integrated into automated line processes to catch errors that might otherwise ruin entire lots. This benefit may be enough to account for enough loss savings to realize a favorable ROI.
Checkweigh inspection systems consist of automated checkweigh equipment, usually stationed at the end of the production line. The checkweigher rejects underweight or overweight product units and immediately removes them from the line. The rejection triggers an alert that prompts line workers or supervisors to attend to the fill weight problem, before perhaps thousands of nonconforming products are produced. Some features and benefits of automated checkweigh equipment are:
- Meet AQS as well as non-AQS (UTML) requirements (But be aware of retailers’ standards.)
- Constrain tolerances to ensure increased fill process precision
- Reduce waste to increase profit margin, which cumulatively can add up to staggering savings
Bits of debris such as rubber, metal, glass, stone, and other opaque that contaminate products can be detected using X-ray technology fitted for manufacturing applications. X-ray equipment can see through a product and its packaging to assess density of contents to distinguish foreign materials from product. X-ray inspection can be used with many packaging types, including cans, jars, bottles, foil, and pouches made of a variety of materials. And X-ray machine is higher priced than metal detection equipment, but it precisely locates the contaminant and shows the line operator exactly where it is to be found inside the product. Modern X-ray equipment is optimal for high-speed manufacturing lines and for producers who need to minimize contaminates to guard against recalls. Today’s sophisticated X-ray equipment for manufacturing quality control can be stationed in-line to:
- Detect contaminants
- Identify physical defects
- Detect broken products
- Detect missing products
- Validate integrity of package seals
- Measure products’ mass
5. Metal detection
Currently, a major issue in food production is contamination by stainless steel and other metals. Modern metal detection equipment for manufacturing can detect metal contaminants in products with high fluid volume. This product inspection equipment is good for use in production systems with need to inspect only for metal contaminants in products. Metal detection equipment is usually stationed at or near the end of the production line to inspect the final product. They are not useful for products in tin cans, or in foil or aluminum packaging, or metallic film. Metal detection machinery works well for inspection of:
- dry goods like sugar, flour, salt, and others
- frozen food products
- numerous other products
For your QM team to ensure quality in daily operations by confirming that processes are optimally efficient in conforming to Operating Procedures, manufacturing inspection equipment affords ideally controlled repeatable inspections. Updating your Quality Management Program technology with automated inspection equipment can take your program a great distance toward:
- ensuring customer satisfaction
- overall efficiency of QC systems
- reduce operating cost
- minimize material waste
- reduce instances of product non-conformance
- reduce risk to customers
- reduce risk of recalls
- improve regulatory conformance
- accomplish PI objectives
If your plant is still using outmoded manual inspection processes, it is probably time to discuss with your SME in manufacturing machinery, possibilities for implementing quality and conformance inspection and identification technologies. You may discover that it is more affordable to procure the equipment and implement its use than it is not to do so.