By Alan Thomas, marketing at ZwickRoell Ltd
Delivery delays, production losses or worldwide product recalls, the consequences of bottlenecks in quality control can quickly have far reaching effects on a business. That is why a well functioning quality control program is crucial for any organisation. Shortages in skilled labour, employee turnover, or high absence rates among workers due to illness are among the biggest challenges faced by laboratory or quality assurance managers. So, how can you take the necessary steps to guarantee optimal quality assurance with limited personnel resources?
Identify key positions
Depending on the industry or production sector, a wide range of different testing instruments, machines, and systems, can be used for quality assurance purposes. If we include pre-testing tasks, such as specimen preparation that are required for quality control processes, the number of machine and device options increases even further. For example, a typical testing laboratory in the plastics processing industry uses systems for various testing methods: Mechanical testing, microscopic analysis, spectroscopy, thermal analysis, rheometric analysis and physical analysis.
Depending on the testing or analysis method, and manufacturer, these instruments demand diverse levels of operator training. Machine operation can often be elaborate, and in addition a specialist, usually someone with a high-level of experience must also be able to directly assess the test results. In these cases, it may be worthwhile to investigate for which machines or instruments operation can be simplified so that they can be easily used by less experienced or new personnel – while also maintaining the highest level of safety.
For example, advanced testing software guarantees simple operation based on a sophisticated user management program. The user only sees relevant operational controls, which enables them to start testing immediately. With the use of predefined test programs, all important parameters and test sequences that are required for standard compliant testing are pre-configured. A modern system configuration guarantees consistently identical machine test conditions for tests that are performed on another day or by another user. This helps prevent testing under inadequate conditions and entering incorrect information, and onboarding requirements for new employees are reduced to a minimum. A new user can be ready to, for example, operate a universal testing machine for a standard tensile test after an instructional period of a couple of hours. Intelligent software features and mechanical support tools, such as insertion aids for specimens or automatically attaching extensometers, facilitate tasks that would otherwise have to be manually performed on the machine, even for new or inexperienced personnel. In addition, modern software provides the highest level of safety for both the user and the testing system.
Digitalisation has taken on significant momentum in recent years, affecting processes across many industries. This includes the field of materials testing, where the use of digital technologies has greatly increased process efficiencies. Look at your existing systems. It may be time to consider taking advantage of the many available, and nowadays affordable, digital possibilities. The benefits of digitalisation are clear when it comes to testing laboratory processes.
Leverage automation for repeatable tasks
In many areas of the world, economically developed countries are faced with sparse labour markets, a situation that will likely not subside in the near future. This includes employee shortages in testing laboratories. Today, many businesses are in a situation where consistent automation of a wide range of quality assurance processes is and remains the most important lever for counteracting the lack of qualified laboratory personnel. Materials testing, with its strictly defined testing standards, offers an ideal business model for the automation of testing processes.
Automated systems are less susceptible to human error and can achieve a higher level of accuracy when monitoring processes and results. One example is the scatter of test results, which with the use of a fully automated testing system, such as a universal testing machine with automated specimen feeding system, is reduced by approximately 5% when compared with a similar set-up incorporating manual operation. Through automated functions, errors can also be minimised at the points of data entry, processing, and analysis, ensuring that decisions are always based on precise and reliable data.
Automated systems also work faster and more efficiently than human testers, accelerating processes and increasing productivity. When performing a tensile test, it takes up to 35% less time with a semi-automated machine, when compared with a manually operated machine. In an 8 hour workday, this saves operators close to 3 hours and scarce or skilled workers are free to attend to other important tasks.
A positive side effect of an automated solution is saving costs by saving time and resources that would otherwise be used to perform manual tasks. Automation solutions are often accompanied by a stigma of high expense, which is in turn associated with a low return on investment and leads companies to question its efficiency and of course the feasibility of making the investment. There is no doubt that a machine with full or partial automation is more expensive than a manual version. However, with rapidly rising labour costs or costs incurred when laboratory services are outsourced, automation often pays off much faster than first thought. For example, the ROI for many fully automated systems is less than 24 months. With the help of an intelligent calculator that takes all factors into account, ROI can be calculated individually for all test applications and scenarios.
Automated systems can monitor processes as they occur, allowing users to quickly react to discrepancies or abnormalities and take appropriate corrective action. At the same time, large amounts of data can be analysed quickly and efficiently to identify trends and patterns that are crucial for quality assurance purposes. In addition to test data, users can also manage and evaluate machine data by incorporating testing machine condition monitoring facilities, which offer brand new possibilities for predictive maintenance of equipment and thereby helping avoid unplanned, unproductive equipment downtime.
Will joined Fastener + Fixing Magazine in 2007 and over the last 15 years has experienced every facet of the fastener sector - interviewing key figures within the industry and visiting leading companies and exhibitions around the globe.
Will manages the content strategy across all platforms and is the guardian for the high editorial standards that the Magazine is renowned.