Quality Scan: Should You Outsource Inspection?
Inspection plays a vital role in manufacturing quality control and plant maintenance. Given the hypercompetitive nature of today's global economy, managers are aware that managing the cost of these services is critical to economic success. Consequently, when putting together an inspection plan, a method of quantifying the benefits and costs of nondestructive testing (NDT) will become increasingly important.
To date, the biggest, most consistent users of NDT inspection have been the military and aerospace industries, where inspection requirements are clearly spelled out in RFQs. These industries are closely followed by manufacturers and users of pipelines and pressure vessels, where all this work has typically been performed by an in-house inspection department. Independent NDT labs have often been relied upon only when the customer experiences an overload of inspection work or some sort of emergency.
Other industries, where NDT requirements are much less well defined, have not been as aware of the need for NDT inspection as traditional users, partly because NDT typically has been perceived only as a necessary evil. This situation has been compounded by low awareness of various newer NDT techniques, and the advantages involved in using independent NDT lab services. Part of the blame here lies with the NDT industry for not clearly and consistently carrying their message to the manufacturing community.
With improved manufacturing technologies, however, and demands for uniform quality exerted by initiatives such as just-in-time, lean manufacturing, and ISO 9000, more and more companies are seeing the need for NDT inspection and quality certification by independent services. When primary manufacturers don't have an NDT department, they put pressure on their suppliers to provide advanced testing. These suppliers often find it more economical to contract those services than to invest in new technology that does not contribute to their core competencies. They appreciate that it's better to spend funds on new manufacturing equipment rather than purchase inspection technology that will require intensive training and transition time. Basically, some companies have simply determined they do not want to shoulder the burden of product quality as it relates to NDT.
Even some large manufacturers, who traditionally have had extensive NDT services as an integral part of their own quality programs, are discovering benefits in contracting their NDT services to independent labs. These manufacturers can enjoy the benefits of advanced technologies and discoveries by turning to a contractor that has already invested in them.
Independent labs have the ability to offer many different testing methodologies. And, because they are well-versed in many different technologies, they also understand that not all approaches are equally good at finding a specific defect. Use of an independent lab that specializes in NDT can ensure that a customer receives the most appropriate and technologically advanced testing available for their application.
An independent lab can focus on NDT, not getting parts out the door. And though there is intense competition, as in all industries, NDT professionals constantly work together to improve their ability to serve industry and the public through professional associations such as the American Society for Nondestructive Testing. It's here that users and manufacturers of NDT equipment can share their needs and the latest developments.
In addition to the investment and learning-curve issues, some OEMs want their suppliers to recognize the value of an impartial third-party review of product quality. There is increasing awareness in industry of the value of NDT as a productive solution to a problem—a solution that improves safety, enhances quality, and saves money. It's no longer being viewed as simply a way of finding flaws in the final product.
Another less-discussed but valid argument for third-party inspection has been discovered by some larger corporate entities. These companies have NDT capacity, but have considered continued auxiliary use of an independent lab as a safety mechanism to help them deal with such issues as strikes, long-term equipment breakdowns, plant-maintenance shutdowns, and equipment-upgrade shutdowns.
NDT lab services are beginning to make the transition from being mere overflow businesses, hoping their potential customers will be overwhelmed by their inspection needs, to the status of full-program providers. Many managers are gaining a new awareness of NDT inspection, not as a necessary evil or an inconvenience, but as a normal and valued part of doing business.
This article was first published in the November 2006 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.