Outsourcing on our terms

02 July 2009

Dr Jonathan Vickers, technical manager at Stemner Imaging, explains how vision can help maintain high standards of quality control and reassurance for manufacturers outsourcing production.

The outsourcing of significant parts of production is commonplace throughout manufacturing industry. Whether it is labour-intensive production progressively moving to areas with lower labour costs, or simply sub-contracting production to specialist companies, the problem has always been that quality standards are something of an unknown. In outsourcing production, control of quality is also passed to someone else. This has led to an interesting separation of production and quality testing as goods are tested on their delivery to the nominal manufacturer rather than at the actual point of production.

The traditional model of production involves a production line with quality checks at critical points, often using vision for gauging or completeness checks. In some processes this simply means a final, end-of-line inspection to ensure that a product is complete or within specifications. De-coupling the production and inspection is possible where the cost of wastage is negligible or a reasonable level of inspection can be carried out on the final product.

A modern vision system is usually far quicker than production processes, allowing for high-speed or 24-hour inspection systems for goods made elsewhere. This can be seen in two particular types of industry: automotive and aerospace (where quality is all-important and component suppliers often make significant parts of the final product, such as car seats and aircraft wings) and also manufacturing processes that can be easily outsourced to areas such as China with lower labour costs.

Outsourcing quality
Quality testing goods from suppliers allows the nominal manufacturer, for example the car company, to be confident in the quality of the components that it fits to its products and also allows them to grade a secondary supplier’s ability to meet quality targets. This can work either as a carrot or a stick, often inducing suppliers to carry out 100 per cent inspection to ensure compliance. The cost of a vision system quickly pays for itself when compared to lost business or a returned batch due to a few defective examples. With just-in-time production methods, the importance of high quality components is even more critical. In these cases, quality assurance trickles down the supply chain.

Keeping Quality in-house
In other cases the intention is simply to obtain cheap production and reject all of the products that do not conform. This requires that it is sensible to simply discard defective manufactured parts, for example where the cost of raw materials is low, but the cost of tooling might be high. In this case the inspection process is a case of sorting the wheat from the chaff. An example of this is in the plastic moulding industry, where sometimes this technique can prove effective.

The effect on UK firms?
In maintaining quality control in the UK (as well as potentially at overseas suppliers), UK firms are able to either take advantage of potentially lower-quality suppliers or bring their existing suppliers to a higher quality level. Either way this helps UK firms that choose to outsource to maintain high quality in difficult economic times.

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