Keeping Tabs on Quality Levels (PLANT Magazine)

by Adam Pletsch

June 2006

The quest for quality is central to business success for Canadian manufacturers, but their methods of tracking it can be even more important. For example, if product quality is dropping faster than you can write up the paper charts to prove it, you're working too slowly—and you're going to end up tossing a lot of product in the garbage.

Ball Corp., a Broomfield, Colo.-based manufacturer of metal and plastic packaging, for the beverage and food industries, gained this knowledge almost a decade ago and has been acting on it ever since. In an effort to improve quality, reduce spoilage, control material costs and track energy consumption, the company installed InfinityQS International's statistical process control (SPC) software at two of its Canadian operations (the metal beverage packaging division in Whitby, Ont., and the Richmond, BC-based metal food and household packaging division). The software will also be installed at a metal food can plant in Burlington, Ont. this fall. "Manufacturers can catch problems much sooner by using SPC products," says Mike Lyle, president and CEO of InfinityQS, a Chantilly, Va.-based provider of enterprise-wide quality control solutions for manufacturers.


Ball Corp. has implemented InfinityQS's statistical process control software to improve quality, reduce spoilage, control material costs and track energy consumption at 20 of its metal beverage and plastic container plants. PHOTO: PLANT STOCK

Catch the defect
Defined as the application of statistical methods to identify and control the special cause of variation in a process, SPC is the equivalent of a histogram that is plotted on its side over time.

According to iSixSigma.com, "Every new point is statistically compared with previous points as well as with the distribution as a whole in order to assess likely considerations of process control (i.e. control, shifts and trends)."

What this means in layman's terms is: that it can catch a process before it starts producing defects. The InfinityQS software puts the data into a centralized database. It also offers users an interface that provides immediate notification of problems.

Peter Graham, manager, compliance and control for metal food container operations at Ball Packaging Products Canada Corp., said the collection of data involved writing paper records or using other, non-user-friendly software.

These methods just weren't efficient enough, he explains. "The ability to refer to data both historically as well as in real time is an advantage to Ball associates who run the equipment on our production floor as well as plant and staff management."

In the Canadian plants, InfinityQS is hooked up to a variety of gauges as well as to some direct manual data-entry processes. Weight scales and dimensional gauges feed the data to the software.

The SPC solution typically involves its software plus some hardware. The hardware components used to automate the data collection process include gauge interfaces to read from the manufacturer's gauges. InfinityQS doesn't require customers to buy specific hardware. "The system is quite open and lets them push data in directly," explains Lyle.

Implementation of InfinityQS is ongoing. Within Ball's packaging business, all of its metal beverage container and plastic container plants are fully operational. Its metal food container plant implementations are almost complete, while the remaining three facilities will have InfinityQS installed by year-end. But Ball's recent acquisitions, which include plants for aerosol, specialty containers and additional types of plastic containers, still require introduction of the software.

While company policy doesn't allow Ball to qualify statements with numbers, the company says benefits have been noted post-implementation, now employees can see historical data and are able to monitor it and react more quickly to trends. And management can track improvements in a given process.

Ball had some special requirements. Lyle said the manufacturer needed to be able to measure the height of a metal can from the base to the top or around the circumference. "The other products they were looking at didn't give them the ability to monitor those within-piece variability items, whether you're talking about wall thickness or can height, if you're doing multiple measurements for the same characteristic on the same piece," says Lyle.


Ball Corp.'s Richmond, BC operation in Metal Food & Household Packaging uses InfinityQS statistical process control software to improve quality, reduce spoilage and control material costs. PHOTOS: BALL CORP.

Other applications
While InfinityQS is clearly a good fit for food- and beverage-producing industries, the software is also used by pharmaceutical and medical equipment manufacturers, as well as companies in the automotive and aerospace sectors.

In fact the company's roots go back to the aerospace industry. Before Lyle cofounded InfinityQS in 1989, he worked at Hughes Aircraft Co.'s Advanced Circuit Technology Center. Lyle had been designing software to control various manufacturing processes—primarily hardwarerelated ones—and saw a need to improve the way the statistical process control elements were handled. While there were a lot of products competing in this space, from a statistical point of view, they weren't up to the task, he adds.

"It's almost like, you buy a gauge and the gauge is out of calibration and you're using it to monitor your manufacturing process. And based upon what you're reading from that gauge, you're throwing things away," says Lyle. "If you don't use the right statistical tools to do that analysis, you might as well be using a gauge that's out of calibration to make those calculations."

The development of InfinityQS was only a starting point for the company. Even good products don't sell themselves, so one of InfinityQS's ongoing challenges is helping manufacturers see the opportunities for improvement that exist on the quality side. "Occasionally customers have problems getting their people to understand that monitoring and doing all these things really does improve the bottom line, and really does improve the manufacturing process," he explains.

System integration
It is also possible to hook InfinityQS to manufacturers' enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems. Lyle says while a lot of customers have tied directly into their ERP systems, such systems really exist in the front office, while InfinityQS begins its data collection techniques on the production floor, pushing the information up.

And users don't need to buy separate business intelligence software to analyze and report on quality. They apply the fairly extensive analysis and reporting capabilities of InfinityQS and quickly generate a certificate of analysis, if a customer requires it.

For Ball Corp., InfinityQS has been critical in its quest to shorten response times to its clients. "Being close to our customers and understanding their needs is one of the keys to our success," says Graham.

Ball now has the tools it needs to gather critical data and report to clients in a timely manner. If product quality starts to drop, Ball will find out right away, so employees can react sooner rather than later.

Adam Pletsch, former editor of IT For Industry, is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor.

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