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Phillip Smith

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Automated Inspection and Gauging Improves Quality and Reduces Cost

From basic to custom-built, automated inspection and gauging systems provide 100-percent inspection.

Published: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 - 18:00

Automated inspection and gauging systems can help companies to improve overall product quality and grow their business while reducing manufacturing costs, helping them to become more competitive in this difficult business climate. Whether they are producing automotive, medical, consumer, or virtually any other product, all companies have some type of quality inspection or gauging as part of their production process. Some companies specify that their production line operators are responsible for verifying product quality. Other companies utilize quality technicians offline to manually gauge or visually check smaller audit groups of products to verify critical dimensions, the presence of features, or to look for defects. As machine vision inspection cameras and laser-gauging sensors have become more cost effective, many companies are implementing automated inspection and gauging systems in their facilities. These systems can be as simple as standalone cameras or sensors integrated into existing machinery, or as specialized as custom-designed and built turnkey automated inspection machines. No matter what type of system is ultimately selected, automated inspection and gauging offers companies many benefits over the older manual processes and they can help companies to compete more effectively for new business.

Improve product quality. Properly designed and programmed automated inspection and gauging systems are very fast, accurate, and repeatable. They virtually eliminate the human error content of most gauge repeatability and reliability studies of manual inspection and gauging processes. Machine vision cameras can be programmed to automatically verify dozens of features on 100 percent of the products or assemblies produced in as little as one second. Precision laser sensors provide micron-level measurement accuracy without even contacting the part. Manual inspection, on the other hand, is highly labor intensive and error prone. Operators must rely on detailed work instructions, hand-held measurement devices, and can be easily distracted while in the middle of checking the product.

Grow their business. Customers demand continuous improvements from their suppliers, which include better product quality backed by statistical data. Automated inspection and gauging systems can be programmed to collect pass/fail results data for every feature checked on 100 percent of the products and then automatically record that data to several file types. Manual inspectors could collect and then enter the same type of data, but it may prove to be inefficient and potentially laced with errors. Companies that implement automated inspection generally highlight those systems during their customers’ visits to demonstrate that they are proactive with new technologies and the best choice to support their new business.

Reduced manufacturing costs. Labor tends to be one of the highest costs for manufacturers. As the training level moves up from line operator to quality technician, labor costs grow even higher. Moreover, complex products can take longer to inspect, so additional operators may be required to keep up with the desired production rate. Finally, an operator must actually be present to inspect the product, so if a company has multiple shifts these costs can be two to three times the primary shift cost. On the other hand, automated inspection and gauging systems are very fast one-time investments that can be utilized 24/7 with little to no additional costs. Companies can monitor the inspection results data and then immediately correct process problems that cause rejects, thereby, reducing scrap and improving line efficiency. One hundred percent inspection should also help companies avoid the cost of containment and reinspection that typically is the result of audit-only inspections and machine or operator errors.

Types of systems

There are four principle types of automated inspection and gauging systems. First, machine vision cameras or precision laser measurement sensors can be integrated into a company’s existing machinery or process. This is the most basic and the lowest cost way to get started. Technology distributors are available to assist companies that have very simple inspection requirements. Systems integrators are normally called in if the application requires more complex programming and support.

Next, these same vision cameras or laser sensors could be installed inside of enclosures with light guarding, a pass-through conveyor, a reject device, and controls to separate good products from bad products. These entry-level automated inspection and gauging systems are available from qualified integrators and suppliers that have programming, design, and build experience. These suppliers routinely work with companies to help them specify systems based upon the product to be checked.

Third, turnkey automated inspection and gauging systems are highly customized machines with multiple cameras or lasers and are designed specifically for a single part or a closely related family of parts. These machines are sometimes referred to as sorting machines because some of them can run 24/7 unattended. They usually include automatic feeder bowls, material handling, reject containment, good box full counters, packing, and labeling options.

Finally, the most flexible type of automated inspection and gauging systems utilize robots to move either the part or the camera/laser around for multiple inspections on more complex parts. These systems can be designed to process the widest variety of parts because the robots are programmed to accurately move to a large number of positions. Additionally, the robots can be equipped with end-of-arm grippers for double duty as the systems’ load/unload pick-and-place device for even more flexibility. Robotic and turnkey automated (sorting) inspection and gauging systems are available from specialty machine manufacturers and the most experienced integrators. Several examples are shown on web sites such as www.cincinnatiautomation.com.

Selecting a supplier

There are several factors to consider when choosing the best automated inspection and gauging systems. These should include initial system cost, current and future production rate, production flow, single part, or family of parts to be checked, and what other value-added or labor-saving features could be implemented at the same time as the automated inspection and gauging system. In the end, the most important factor is usually return on investment (ROI). It is surprising to many companies that automated inspection and gauging systems can have a payback of less than 12 months. To be fair and even more appealing, the ROI calculation should include some form of good will and expected new business that may be indirectly related to the new automation.

When selecting possible suppliers, review the automated inspection and gauging systems suppliers’ web sites for their standard inspection products and their years of proven machine vision and laser integration experiences with the same or very similar products. Some engineering firms and custom machine builders may mention automated inspection in addition to other services that they provide, but since this technology is changing rapidly it is best for companies to select experienced suppliers that specialize in machine vision and laser gauging systems. Some of them even offer free inspection and gauging project evaluations, which is another good place to start.

Finally, during the initial call or meeting with a new automation system supplier, companies should provide as many details about their product and process as possible. Experienced suppliers should demonstrate to the company a solid understanding of the requirements, the inspection and gauging technology to be integrated, and offer creative and cost effective solutions that benefit the company throughout the product lifecycle.

Basic automated inspection and gauging systems are economically priced, fast, accurate, and provide 100-percent data collection for all parts checked.

Custom automated inspection and gauging systems (also called sorting systems) can be designed for 24/7 unattended operation.

Robotic inspection and gauging systems are the most flexible, which allows for a wider range of part types to be checked. They are ideal for precision medical devices and can be expanded for larger complex parts or assemblies.

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About The Author

Phillip Smith’s default image

Phillip Smith

Phillip Smith is president and general manager of Cincinnati Automation located in Erlanger, Kentucky. Cincinnati Automation has been providing machine vision and laser gauging systems integration since 1993. They have a complete line of automated inspection and gauging systems on their web site www.cincinnatiautomation.com.