Before we address today’s testing trends, let’s look at the impact of the pandemic.

“I believe that COVID-19 pushed everyone in the manufacturing sphere ahead five years in terms of thinking outside the box,” says David Francis, president and CEO, Fowler Precision.

The pandemic also created conditions that stressed manufacturers and caused major shifts in the way consumers purchase products, experts say. 

“For example, with the boom in online shopping, consumers are no longer selecting specific items off the shelf with the opportunity to inspect and discard a less appealing or defective item,” says Monique Apter, EVP of sales and marketing, Elementary Robotics. “That item selection process, which previously fell to the consumer, is now in the hands of manufacturers or distributors, placing even greater emphasis on their quality control.”

Additionally, the global way in which consumers share information through online reviews and social media magnifies the impact of quality beyond a local level, Apter says.

As a result, manufacturers are looking for flexible, “smart quality” solutions such as AI-based visual inspections to be able to do more inspections, evaluating an increasing number of criteria, that are easy to deploy within a small or medium sized business or scalable across an entire enterprise, Apter says.

“Advancements in AI, cloud computing and robust connectivity are providing a framework for innovation and enhancements in our field,” she explains. “This innovation removes much of the complexity inherent in earlier generations of machine vision systems and ultimately lowers cost, making it easier for companies to adopt.”

Testing and inspection in various stages of manufacturing are increasing in frequency and importance. Much of this is due to the increased requirements from the end customers for manufactured parts, says Francis.

“Best-in-class manufacturers continue to drive quality while eliminating waste, scrap and inefficient processes,” says Francis. 

Quality-focused inspection equipment can offer manufacturers quality data collection solutions. 

“Good, accurate inspection data at multiple points in the manufacturing process enables operators and engineers to make use of artificial intelligence and other 4.0 predictive strategies,” Francis adds.

COVID-19 exposed serious gaps in the resiliency of several supply chains and business processes, says Mike Baggley, chief customer officer, Intelex Technologies ULC. As such, quality will be critical in helping to support stronger, more resilient supply chains and providing greater transparency of human-based, undocumented processes. This became apparent when many organizations moved to digital workplaces during the pandemic. 

“The pandemic forced manufacturers to re-evaluate many work force topics including working remotely, social distance on production lines and automation,” says Apter. “Finding solutions that will allow operations to continue in the event of further pandemics is a front and center topic for many manufacturers.”

Some experts predict that more manufacturing will be brought back to the U.S., due to the pandemic’s effect on the supply chain.

“I believe we are seeing evidence of that already reflected in the growing interest we’ve seen in our AI vision systems,” Apter says.

Manufacturers are increasingly concerned with the integrity and resiliency of their supply chains, experts say. It’s now possible to import statistical data on suppliers, which enables manufacturers to monitor quality across the entire supply chain. 

“They can then share this data with suppliers to ensure quality and continuous improvement,” Baggley says.

Remote auditing is also top of mind for many organizations. 

Two workers in masks.Source: Kiwis / iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images.

Manufacturers are increasingly concerned with the integrity and resiliency of their supply chains.

“Many organizations did remote auditing before the pandemic, but they became particularly important during the pandemic when auditors were not able to visit cites in person to conduct audits,” Baggley says. “With more organizations now having seen the value of continuing remote audits, a digital quality management system (QMS) that can facilitate remote access to the QMS documentation will be critical for all organizations in the years to come.”

COVID-19 has illustrated the significance of Quality 4.0 to support resilient manufacturing centers, experts say. Automation and IIoT-supported processes have proven essential to creating a supply chain and manufacturing approach that are resilient in the face of future crises. 

“COVID-19 has also demonstrated the critical importance of data quality. It’s not enough to have data and analytics to provide insight into processes,” Baggley says. “Data quality principles must ensure that the data can provide unbiased insights upon which strategies can be built. COVID-19 saw the consequences of poor data quality in many areas, from epidemiology to supply chain. Data quality will therefore be the next important step in the quality field.”

Finally, many organizations have gained a new appreciation of the concepts of risk during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“While risk-based thinking is an important element of ISO 9001:2015, the complexity of risk management has sometimes prevented organizations from knowing how to address the threats and opportunities that risk presents. Digital management systems that provide data and process transparency will be a critical component in understanding how risk operates across the entire organization,” Baggley says.

Advancements in AI, cloud computing and robust connectivity are providing a framework for innovation and enhancements in the field, Apter says. This innovation removes much of the complexity inherent in earlier generations of machine vision systems and ultimately lowers cost, making it easier for companies to adopt. 

“We see a less rigid adherence to existing rituals in manufacturing, which we believe is a welcome change,” Francis says. “From the top down, great manufacturing companies are becoming much more open to taking a new approach to their quality control and inspection processes.”

Baggley agrees.

“The quality field is changing to accommodate the reality that quality is not an isolated practice,” he says. “Quality principles lie at the heart of every part of the organization. One need only look at the Baldrige Framework to see that quality lives everywhere, from health and safety to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) strategies.”

The future of the field, Baggley says, is a greater integration with all the areas of the business to improve efficiency and customer delight. 

“This includes quality acting as a support ESG. Organizations looking to improve their ESG reputation would do well to recognize the way quality and operational excellence supports these principles,” he says. “Quality frameworks like Baldrige have addressed many of these issues for some time, which shows the close relationship between quality and ESG.”

Quality 4.0, which supports new, more service-oriented business models, isn’t going anywhere, experts say. In this new approach, vertical and horizontal integration is encouraged between competitors, customers and manufacturers.

 “We are firm believers that Quality 4.0 initiatives are accelerating and are here to stay. The value proposition is too great, and it would be hard to imagine organizations deciding to step back from being able to increase the speed and accuracy of decision making along with improved transparency, traceability, and auditability,” says Apter.

Francis says that Quality 4.0 is the key to continued exponential growth in technology.

“In our opinion, disruptive technologies, and the changes those technologies are bringing to manufacturing, are here to stay,” he says, “and they will continue accelerating.”