Consider the quality engineer at an appliance manufacturer who used to go on ride-alongs with the repair technician in order to learn how their product was performing. Today, the product itself can provide feedback to the manufacturer—with no in-person visit required.

This is just one benefit of implementing Quality 4.0 technology, says David Ryeson, Boston Consulting Group partner and associate director, manufacturing / Industry 4.0. Ryeson co-authored a 2017 Quality 4.0 study with Boston Consulting Group in association with ASQ and DGQ. While many things have changed—and there are plans to update the study—the ideas hold true today.

As the authors write, “Quality 4.0—the application of Industry 4.0’s digital technologies to quality management—has an important role to play in the factory of the future. Its many benefits include real-time process monitoring and data collection, and analytics-supported predictive maintenance. However, technology is only one element in a broader quality transformation.” The study name summarizes the idea: “Quality 4.0 Takes More Than Technology.” As the study says, Quality 4.0 requires “storytelling with data.”

A Closer Look At Quality 4.0

So how might Quality 4.0 affect you? Let’s take another look at what it is.

ASQ defines it this way: “Quality 4.0 is a term that references the future of quality and organizational excellence within the context of Industry 4.0. Quality professionals can play a vital role in leading their organizations to apply proven quality disciplines to new, digital, and disruptive technologies.”

But think beyond technology to maximize improvements at your company—consider your overall approach to quality. Quality 4.0, and the future of quality, is proactive vs. reactive.

If you’re intimidated by new technology—which is understandable—there are a few ways to get started. Or perhaps you’re even wondering why you should adopt these ideas. Experts have a few good reasons.

“The biggest thing is competitors are not standing still,” Ryeson says. “If you don’t get started and start applying this, it could be a competitive disadvantage.”

It’s Time To Look At The Data

Elizabeth M. Keim, the president of Integrated Quality Resources LLC, the chair of the board for the International Academy for Quality and the past president and chair of board for ASQ, has written about this subject in the past. With her background—she has a degree in computer science and started her career at IBM—she’s no stranger to data. She offers this advice: start now.

As she writes in an article with Elizabeth A. Cudney, “The Changing Role of Quality in the Future,” “No one has definitive answers on what will happen in the future, but research studies … can paint a picture of what seems to be on the horizon. Instead of waiting for the changes to occur, now is the time to begin to prepare—much like modern quality management practices that focus on prevention rather than detection.” (For more, listen to our podcast with Elizabeth Keim: Get Started with Quality 4.0.)

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Get Started With Quality 4.0

Elizabeth M. Keim, president of Integrated Quality Resources LLC and the past president and chair of the board for ASQ, knows how intimidating new technologies can be. That’s why she has ideas on how to get started today.

Listen to more Quality podcasts.

Ben Tomic, chair elect of ASQ’s Inspection Division, agrees that now is the time to start. Tomic has written for Quality about Quality 4.0 and has been interested in the concepts for many years. “Quality 4.0 is basically a term that is used to reference the future of quality within the context of Industry 4.0. We live in the world of accelerated changes and exponential growth due to technological advancements, therefore it is mandatory that the quality is an important characteristic of products and services,” Tomic says. “Basically Quality 4.0 is the application of the same ideas and concepts dressed in new clothes.”

To get started, he says you must first understand the shift in industry and familiarize yourself with available technology. From there, it’s on to implementing it.

But it’s also about people and processes, he says. Companies must have an effective management system, with leadership that promotes a quality culture.

“Definitely there are a lot of skeptical companies out there, hesitant to go with new technology,” Tomic says. “But if they don’t implement it, they’ll be less productive and quality will suffer.”

Thus, he says it is critical for companies to start thinking about the available technology, not only because technological changes take time but also because the workforce will need to be retrained with the right skills and mindset.

If you’re looking for inspiration, examples of Quality 4.0 in action may do the trick.Some are amazing to see, Tomic says. For example, watch a robot perform final assembly on an aircraft using GPS, installing sensitive components with no human involvement. Other companies he’s seen are using smart sensors in their manufacturing process or 3D vision technology to catch abnormalities.

After the initial learning curve, he says all of these companies had a positive experience. Productivity increased and they have a competitive advantage in the market. As Tomic says, “The world is changing and therefore quality should change as well.”

In the next few years, Tomic predicts less human inspections and more use of technology. With the available technology, quality professionals won’t have to wait to make the right decision—they’ll be able to react immediately—and the market will demand that. This will allow organizations to execute processes better, adapt faster to any outside factors such as a pandemic or oil prices, and innovate.

For more on the subject, he suggests looking at the ASQ website. ASQ is a great resource on all things quality, including Quality 4.0, and if you’re interested in the topic, they will be holding a Quality 4.0 Summit October 12-14, 2022, in San Antonio, Texas, with hybrid attendance options.

What To Do Now

While today’s smart quality professional would do well to work on their data analytics skills—the BCG research indicated a gap in talent in this area with the companies surveyed—David Ryeson says, “I would also not underestimate the fundamental quality skills.” Just as with new technology of 20 or 30 years ago, he says, “You wouldn’t want to automate a bad process.”

“We see lean going hand in hand with the technology, making sure that quality professionals understand what makes an excellent quality management system,” Ryeson says. In other words, strengthen your quality fundamentals, double down on analytics and don’t forget your communication skills to get it all done.

“Soft skills are very important,” Ryeson says. “Quality 4.0 is transformational, it takes people. Soft skills are very, very important. Communication skills, leadership skills, and change management skills are equally if not more important.”

“It’s about telling stories with the data and solving problems.”