This guest blog comes to us from Cheryl Stevens of AmScope.

If your operations involve any kind of manufacturing, quality control is probably a big part of your life. Quality inspection procedures are essential to making sure that your products are safe and effective. A firm’s total cost of quality (the combination of what it costs to ensure quality and what it costs to respond to quality problems) often equals a hefty 25 percent of its sales–and for some, it can be as high as 40 or 50 percent. 

It’s not surprising, then, that cost of quality (COQ) is an area that many businesses target for improvement. But you’ll need to tread carefully, as reducing the resources devoted to COQ can have serious negative effects if it’s executed as simple budget-slashing. Instead, take the time to approach your quality inspection process with surgical precision, trimming the fat from your procedures and streamlining where it makes the most sense. These six tips will give you some ideas on where to start. 

1. Follow the process through its entirety.
It’s important to have a detailed idea of what your process looks like on the ground. Take the time to observe its operational standards in person and ask the questions that will help you make it more effective, such as: 
  • Does your inspection process involve a lot of manual work? If so, could it be effectively automated? 
  • How long does the inspection process take per unit? Can you speed it up without sacrificing accuracy? 
  • Are there steps in the process that occupy a disproportionate amount of the inspector's time? Can these be improved?
  • Do employees understand how to use your quality control software and troubleshoot minor issues without going to IT?
2. Examine the goals and procedures of your inspection process. 
Observing the practice of your quality inspection can tell you half the story. To understand the other half, you need to know the theory inside and out. Examine the quality inspection procedures as laid out in your operations manual and make sure that they align with best practices of quality control
  • Are your inspections targeting products at the right stage of production (i.e., pre-production, in-line, pre-shipment)?
  • Are your AQLs well-defined and in-line with customer expectations? 
  • Are your inspection report templates well-designed and easy for different employees to apply consistently? 
  • Are your procedures able to target the stages of production with the highest risk? 
  • Are your quality control data standardized and easy to share across a network?
  • Do employees understand what they're testing for and why it's important? 
3. Consider reducing inspection sample sizes.
Longer inspections with larger sample sizes will obviously have a higher cost. While these more in-depth inspections will produce results with greater confidence, sometimes you simply don’t need them. It’s a good idea to take a look at your AQL and decide whether you can safely reduce your sample size. 

The standard model for AQL sampling uses General Inspection Levels, referred to as GI through GIII. You can use the ANSI standard table to identify the accept and reject points correlated with each sample size and AQL. The levels are as follows: 
  • GI: Smallest sample size. Used for low-value goods or suppliers you have high confidence in. 
  • GII: The sample size that most businesses use. Usually a good compromise between quality and efficiency. 
  • GIII: The highest sample size and the most expensive and time-consuming. Used for high-value goods with low defect tolerances.
Choosing a lower inspection level can save significant person-hours and reduce cost—but make sure to involve all relevant stakeholders in the decision, since it can involve trade-offs in confidence levels. 

4. Issue chargebacks to suppliers when goods fail an inspection.
Many businesses get good results from increasing supplier accountability when their products fail an inspection. By issuing chargebacks for batches that are rejected by QC, you can incentivize your suppliers to resolve production issues at their source while getting an infusion of cash to balance out the costs of a failed inspection. 

Whether this technique will work depends largely on your relationship with your suppliers. Supplier chargebacks generally aren’t a good idea when you’re working with new suppliers, suppliers you have an uncertain relationship with or you’re ordering small amounts of relatively low-value goods. Remember also that this is a long game technique that relies on incentivizing suppliers to improve their performance, so it may not produce immediate results. 

5. Make sure your measurement equipment is up to the task. 
It’s worth taking a second look at your inspection tools to ensure that they can give you the data you need. For automated inspection equipment, some key basic standards include: 
  • Measurement accuracy at least three times greater than part tolerances for CNC machining. 
  • Sufficient speed to keep pace with production. 
  • Able to handle a wide range of part sizes, including the largest parts you need to be inspected.
  • Built durable enough to withstand high production levels and use on a factory floor. 
  • Able to automatically generate data is a useful format.
If you’re doing manual examinations of high-value goods, the standards vary more by which kinds of goods you’re inspecting. The type of microscopes used to inspect your goods, for example, will be determined by how fine your tolerances are. The rule of thumb, of course, is to involve your engineers and QC team at every stage, designing your processes and sourcing equipment using their input.

6. Inspect goods closer to their point of manufacture.

For decades, outsourced manufacturing has been common across industries—so, why not get your inspections done in the same place as you do your manufacturing? Third party QC, usually performed in manufacturing hubs like China or India, is an increasingly popular option for businesses that source products from these countries.

If you choose to go with third party QC, it’s more important than ever to have well-defined procedures and controls. Depending on the product, you may need to establish detailed standards from AQLs all the way down to methods they use to inspect products under a microscope. As always, communicating your standards early and clearly is the key to getting results.

It’s often said that the race for quality has no shortcuts, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t make your organization leaner and more efficient. By cutting your inspection costs with precision and care, you can reduce your expenditures while keeping your quality at the high levels your customers expect. That’s the kind of win-win proposition that will always pass inspection.

Author Bio: Cheryl Stevens is the Community Relations Specialist for AmScope. She oversees all company-wide content creation, outreach programs, and initiatives. Her passion in life is helping others see the value in and implement STEM programs for children at an early age.

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