This article highlights that quality control at manufacturing companies take many forms. Basically, quality control implies that everyone involved in the manufacture of a product or part makes sure it can be easily manufactured and that after it has been made, it meets certain predetermined specifications. Other industries are following ISO standards and becoming certified to show potential customers that they maintain rigorous quality control standards. Companies interested in quality matters have a host of technologies to help them achieve their goals. Other technologies exist, such as JMP from SAS Institute in Cary, NC, which analyzes data from the shop floor in order to monitor performance. Numbers that do not fit set patterns might alert engineers to a manufacturing problem. The software links graphics, such as charts and graphs, with the statistical data so engineers can better conceptualize the statistics. Quality control is not only about inspecting products after they are produced. In fact, it often begins at the very first step in the manufacturing process—ensuring that design engineers have all the information they need to properly design a part, and making sure they are properly trained on any software they use while creating the design.
At manufacturing companies, quality control takes many forms. Basically, quality control has come to mean that everyone involved in the manufacture of a product or part makes sure it can be easily manufactured and that after it has been made, it meets certain predetermined specifications.
Gone is the image of Inspector 13 pulling and maligning each piece of underwear that comes down the conveyor belt. Companies find this inspection after the fact an expensive option. Although parts are inspected after they’re produced, quality control now takes other forms, aided by new technologies. Often, quality control begins before the product is even designed.
The space systems division of Lockheed Martin in Denver, for example, has put in place a training program for engineers following a number of company mergers and acquisitions during the past few years, said Jeff Smith, who oversees 320 engineers in the Lockheed Martin space systems division. The program has helped slash the number of iterations made on designs before they’re produced and has brought consistency to the design process, Smith said. In addition, it has ensured that the parts designed meet production standards and those parts will be of the highest possible quality.
Lockheed Martin, headquartered in Bethesda, Md., manufactures jet fighters and transport planes as well as missiles for both offensive and defensive purposes. In addition, the company is developing a reusable spacecraft intended to replace the Space Shuttle. The company also manufactures satellites and launch vehicles.
“Our challenge was a 100 percent success rate for parts and, like many companies, this came in the midst of a financial squeeze,” Smith said. To achieve such a success rate—meaning that each part would be perfect and have to fit its intended purpose—the company adopted the best business practices from each of the firms it merged with or acquired. The engineer training program was one of those best practices, Smith said.
“We wanted to provide design standards that engineers must follow, but we didn’t want to take away from the engineer’s creativity,” Smith said. “But engineering change notices are a big cost driver, and we wanted to cut this.
“It used to be an engineer would just perform a task and that was it,” he said. “But now we use a performance measurement tool that provides engineers with feedback. They do a task, the tool provides the feedback on how they did the task, and then the tool asks them to do it again.”
The system, DesignQA from Prescient Technologies of Boston, detects, assesses, corrects, and prevents product development problems caused by inaccurate, inconsistent, or incomplete design modeling practices. The software, found on each designer’s desktop, uses a preprogrammed evaluation system to assess the quality of the design and to determine if Lockheed Martin should provide more training for the engineers as they continue in their jobs, Smith said.
Engineers are evaluated on their final product, although the system then points to steps they could have taken during the design process that would have helped to change the final product or enabled them to use a more succinct process. The system also enables engineers to track their design progress and prowess over the course of several designs, Smith added.
“We’re essentially saying to the engineer, ‘Here’s a model; here’s the best way we found to do this. We’re training you to do it that way, while still allowing you some creativity,”’ Smith said.
Engineers may be using inconsistent design practices because Lockheed Martin formerly used nine separate software programs for product design. As a result, engineers often didn’t have an in-depth knowledge of any one CAD system, though they could design on many systems. Now, Lockheed Martin has scaled back to Using only four main systems in order to ensure that designers focus on using one system they know inside and out, Smith said.
The company chose the four systems to ensure that they would complement each other and that designs could be readily shared. The four systems are the training software from Prescient Technologies, and design systems from PTC in Waltham, Mass.; Structural Dynamics Research Corp. in Milford, Ohio; and Engineering Animation in Ames, Iowa.
But scaling back the number of software systems used wasn’t enough, Smith added.
“We had spent a half-million dollars training engineers on PTC, but we found they still couldn’t do their work on it,” Smith said. “So we developed seven customized training classes.” PTC manufactures Pro/Engineer, a CAD system that Lockheed Martin uses to design launch vehicles.
The engineers now undergo 27 to 30 days of training, customized for each individual, to focus on areas where skills may be weak. The training classes are tied to the DesignQA system, which tracks engineers as they work in order to identify areas where they might need special design training.
The Lockheed Martin space systems division has also worked with PTC to develop what Smith called a one-hour assessment test as well as a randomized assessment test. The second test asks engineers to design a model, which is then evaluated using metrics in the software program.
“We measure this after the training classes to see if the training works,” Smith said. The company originally took 12 engineers, evaluated them, let them work at their desktops with the DesignQA software in place, then evaluated them again after one year. The engineers performed much better on the second test one year later, Smith said.
For instance, Smith had found that engineers use only about 40 percent of the design tools included in the PTC program. One year later, engineers made use of many more design tools.
All this training and evaluating ensures that products are well designed and meet exactly the specifications laid out by those requesting the part or the product, he added.
“A quality engineered product promotes a quality manufacturing environment,” Smith said.
Quality Across the Board
But quality control doesn’t stop at properly training design engineers on the software they use and ensuring that they’re designing to the best of their ability. Often, Smith said, design engineers work in a vacuum. They’re simply told to design a part. They focus on this one task and often lose sight of the big picture.
Dane Barrager, president of a company that provides quality control software, said engineers are often asked to design parts that can’t be easily created. Frequently, engineers focus on whether they can design such a part. Thoughts go out the window about whether the part, once designed, can be easily manufactured.
“There are cases I’ve heard of where the operators who make the parts are supposed to have three hands to get the job done. Design engineers aren’t trained to spot that kind of stuff in their design,” Barrager said.
The software from Barrager’s company, Integral Solutions of Royal Oak, Mich., is intended to map the manufacturing process, or the process flow. The software gives machine operators a diagram of the process that they can refer to and follow on computers that are located throughout the shop. Barrager and his wife, Cindy, a manufacturing engineer, decided to create the software—which essentially functions as a database of manufacturing advice and information tied to a particular part—after Barrager saw the detailed paper trail his wife left when laying out the process flow. The software, in essence, digitizes the paper trail.
The design engineer’s role in the manufacturing process is to identify, in an abstract way, how the part he or she designs can be processed, Barrager said. This information is included with the CAD drawing passed to the manufacturing engineer and helps eliminate the need for three-armed operators, he added.
“Of course, design engineers are not doing a detailed process flow,” he said. “They won’t know the machines and tools and gauges needed. But they can at least identify the manufacturing steps the parts will go through.
“A manufacturing engineer gets some kind of CAD drawing from the design engineer,” Barrager said. “The manufacturing engineer is told to design a manufacturing process that will produce the part.”
In addition to creating a digital record of the process flow, the manufacturing engineer includes information to operators about what to do if that process fails, Barrager said. The manufacturing engineer, for example, may determine that there’s a chance an injection-molded plastic part may have gaps between the mold and the part.
That engineer would include information in the digitized database about what operators should do if they see such rim gaps.
“Or maybe the manufacturing engineers would determine that operators need to be inspecting each part as it comes off the line to make sure each part is good,” Barrager said. “They would include that with the process flow information.”
Automotive Quality Standards
This software is used specifically by automotive suppliers, Barrager said. These suppliers have to put in place rigorous quality control measures—and prove they’ve put them there—to be able to supply their parts to the Big Three automakers, Barrager said.
In the late 1980s, following Japan’s entrance into the American car market, the automotive industry adopted a number of quality control specifications laid out by the International Standards Organization.
One of these quality control standards—QS 9000, based on ISO standards—has been adopted by the Big Three and their suppliers. The automakers say it shows that they and their suppliers have achieved standards of quality recognized worldwide. The automotive industry has adopted the standards to reduce the costs associated with poor quality and to become more competitive.
The automakers and their suppliers must develop a quality system that meets the requirements specified within the QS 9000 standards. The standards include a large number of guidelines for manufacturing and part design and for other considerations the company must follow. Once the plant has developed and implemented a quality system, an accredited external auditor must evaluate the effectiveness of the quality system. If the auditor determines that the system meets the standards, the factory receives official certification.
The Big Three automakers stipulate that their Tier 1 parts suppliers must be QS 9000 certified.
More and more, Barrager said, other industries are following ISO standards and becoming certified to show potential customers that they maintain rigorous quality control standards.
Companies interested in quality matters have a host of technologies to help them achieve their goals.
Other technologies exist, such as JMP from SAS Institute in Cary, N.C., which analyzes data from the shop floor in order to monitor performance. Numbers that don’t fit set patterns might alert engineers to a manufacturing problem. The software links graphics, such as charts and graphs, with the statistical data so engineers can better conceptualize the statistics.
Quality control isn’t only about inspecting products after they’re produced. In fact, it often begins at the very first step in the manufacturing process—ensuring that design engineers have all the information they need to properly design a part, and making sure they’re properly trained on any software they use while creating the design.