In his well-renowned 1959 lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” Physicist Richard Feynman challenged his colleagues in the scientific community to think more practically and abandon looking for answers on the large scale—i.e. the composition of the universe, gravitational effects on planets—and instead look at matter on a smaller scale, the atomic scale. The lecture is credited with inspiring the concept of nanotechnology.

In order to emphasize some of the points he made in his talk, Feynman offered prizes to the individuals who could solve two problems: construction of a nanomotor and producing letters small enough that the entire Encyclopedia Britannica could be written on the head of a pin.

Today, nanotechnology is a reality and thinking smaller has literally produced high-powered computers that fit in the palm of your hand. And, as Feynman pointed out in his lecture, with smaller technology comes the need for smaller tools to build them, and inspect them.

While Feynman challenged people to build motors smaller than a fingernail and write volumes of human knowledge on the head of a pin—both of which were eventually accomplished—he also is quoted saying, “I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding, they learn by some other way…Their knowledge is so fragile!”

The point being that while people are capable of great things, human behavior can be difficult to predict. Frank Tappen has visited hundreds of factory floors in his 20 years of observing the implementation of data collection and SPC solutions in manufacturing operations. In this month’s software article, Frank writes, “Experience has led me to pay particularly close attention to the impact of the most unpredictable factor in almost every process: human beings.” He goes on to write that, “Humans are a ripe source of special cause variation, system breakdown or just humorous misunderstandings. I have seen how, sometimes innocently and sometimes deliberately, human actions can result in unwanted outcomes, missed opportunities or head-scratching mess-ups.”

Frank details some of these more interesting or amusing situations in his article, including a carbon-fiber component manufacturer that implemented a re-inspection and analysis process when any failure was detected. The process featured several layers of review and sign off. Frank writes, “Initially, they noticed a decrease in the number of reported failures and were pleased with the outcomes of this initiative. But they soon discovered that their product quality had not improved, and in fact had gotten worse.”

A review of the re-inspection program revealed that in order to avoid the procedures, operators admitted they were giving any close calls the benefit of the doubt and letting questionable product pass first inspection.

To learn more from Frank’s travels and experiences with data collection and SPC, and more importantly, how these situations were resolved, check out “Data Collection War Stories.” And for a look into how inspection tools are keeping up with the job of inspecting smaller and smaller products, read “A Closer Look at Optical Inspection,” “Deep Thinking About Depth Gages” and “The Hough Transform in Machine Vision,” all in the pages of this month’s Quality.

 Enjoy and thanks for reading!