Quality control is a critical part of the production cycle. Against a set of criteria, products are tested and will pass or fail against the agreed standard. Different organisations will have their own thresholds of acceptable failure rates – failed parts per million or ‘ppm’ in high volume production, but essentially what percentage of what I am producing is fit for market.
The proportion of failed for quality or defective products that is deemed acceptable is specific to each situation. There is clearly more tolerance of a misshapen chocolate sphere in the food and drink industry than a batch of pills with the wrong chemical make up in the pharmaceutical industry, or a weakened engine block in the auto industry. So understanding defects in a product, and what is required to reduce or eliminate them, is something that needs to be done and needs to be done right.
In myriad industries across various business sectors, from medical to manufacturing, science is enhancing the analysis of identified defects following routine quality control.
But its not just in your existing quality assurance checking. More significant can be where a product has passed existing quality control and gone on to fail in its application. Production can be put on hold until the failure can be understood, and potentially product recall might need to be considered.
The cost, customer confidence and PR impact of such an occurrence vary enormously depending on the nature of what is being produced and the nature of the failure, but common to all is the need to get the answers quickly.
Those answers might point to a need to improve quality control in production, to a need to tighten quality testing of raw materials or components further up the supply chain, or indeed they may absolve the company of any responsibility and further action. In a litigious society, the detail is key.
With this as a background, more and more companies are turning to specialists to conduct detailed analysis down to a molecular level using scanning electron microscopy (SEM).
How it works
Electrons are produced within an SEM machine, then passed through a series of lenses to focus them into a single beam.
This beam is directed via a series of coils onto a sample for analysis.
As the electrons hit the sample, electrons and x-rays bounce back up and are collected by the machine for analysis.
The beam moves in the same pattern as we read a page – left to right, stops as it drops down a line, then left to right again – in what is known as a ‘raster’ pattern, which then feeds back to build a picture for analysis.
Outputs can vary, but typically will include a detailed 3D topographical image of the sample surface, and visualisation of its chemical composition highlighting any variation across the sample.
The science of SEM is not new, but as a detailed analysis tool it is becoming increasingly available. Specialist companies employing this technology are able to offer insights into the make up of the samples they are presented with, and the question changes to how best to utilise this new information.
Proactively you can build results into your sales pitch – evidence how seriously you are taking the issue of quality and in so doing give a new level of confidence and assurance to your market. You can build sampling and SEM analysis as standard into your quality measurement processes and be so much more confident that defects will be picked up much earlier in production.
Similarly you can make SEM analysis a requirement of your supply chain – require from those that would be your suppliers a new level of assurance that the materials or components they are sending to you are being even more precisely measured. Remember the earlier up the chain a defect is detected, the lower the costs in waste.
Reactively SEM analysis can be used where despite your best efforts a product has failed and you need to understand why. The timeliness of getting defect analysis conducted is critical when you may have production on hold pending an understanding of an issue. SEM results are available almost immediately after the scan is compete so issues can be identified, put right, and production can start up again in as short a time as possible.
So as the science and the tools behind this detailed analysis become more available, and the expert providers give such a comprehensive answer to questions of quality, the real question might be how long are you going to wait to take advantage of the competitive edge that such technology can give you.