Industry 4.0 by Role: Quality Engineers

Job descriptions in manufacturing are changing fast. From shop-floor associate to shift supervisor to process engineer to senior operations manager, Industry 4.0 has guaranteed that all manufacturing jobs are entering a period of flux.

At Tulip, we always have our eyes on the future of manufacturing. We’re always interested in how the digital transformation will impact the people who make our world. This blog is the first in a series detailing how Industry 4.0 is changing manufacturing work, role by role. This week, we’ll kick things off with Quality Engineers.

Quality Engineering at a Glance

Generally speaking, a quality engineer’s job is to make sure that all processes are performed correctly and efficiently. Manufacturing systems require constant supervision, testing, and documentation. Quality engineers take ownership of these processes to make sure that they are functioning as effectively and safely as possible.

In practice, quality engineering is a varied job function. A large discrete manufacturer, for example, desires different expertise of a QE than an enterprise software company. Even within industries, the tasks performed by QEs will vary. Some quality engineers spend the majority of their day on the shop floor monitoring performance, taking data, and troubleshooting problems. Others spend most of their time immersed in spreadsheets, analyzing performance, and predicting future stumbling blocks. Still others may specialize in writing and debugging code.

What unites these disparate job functions together is a commitment to quality, defined broadly by the ASQ as, “fitness for use, conformance to requirements, and the pursuit of excellence.”

Quality Engineering in the Era of Industry 4.0

Because quality engineering is such a varied role, there is no easy way to summarize how Industry 4.0 is changing the quality profession. Still, it is possible to identify trends in quality control and assurance that are happening with the widespread adoption of AI, cloud computing, IoT, and cyber-physical systems–the technologies responsible for catalyzing the 4th Industrial Revolution.

At the core of industry 4.0 is a shift in the relationships on and around the factory floor–between human and human, machines and humans, and between machines. Given the quality engineer’s mandate to test, train, and document, they are an essential partner to any enterprise looking to navigate these new relationships. 

According to the ASQ, quality engineers will be essential in the Industry 4.0 era. First and foremost, this is because of their expertise analyzing and testing integrated systems. One quality expert stressed the QE’s importance in the connected factory, writing,

“It is clear that assuring such inter-connectedness of software, sensors, devices and data centers requires a quality system that delivers data integrity, privacy and reliability in addition to assuring reliable, rugged, scalable, fully-integrated systems and processes that seamlessly data-share between networks while consistently meeting producer, governmental and customer needs.”

This description goes to the heart of how quality engineering is changing with Industry 4.0. There are more points of connection in the factory, and thus data integrity and security requires greater oversight. Systems need to be compliant and fully integrated, and they need to be flexible enough to accommodate new technologies and processes. And quality professionals can never lose sight of the customer.

The QEs job will thus require understanding how different parts and processes relate, and communicating results and findings to a diverse array of stakeholders.

Quality Graph

Adapted from Illés, et al. “New Challenges for Quality Assurance of Manufacturing Processes in Industry 4.0”, Solid State Phenomena, 261:481-486 · August 2017.

The Big Trends: Big Data and Soft Skills

A 2017 panel of quality experts agreed on two skill sets that will be most important for quality engineers in Industry 4.0: big-data analytics and soft skills, such as interpersonal relationship management, critical thinking, and creativity.

Big data analytics–The modern factory produces an overwhelming amount of data. The activities of machines and humans are constantly recorded, and as server capacity and monitoring technology improve, engineers will have access to data on a previously unimaginable scale. Increasingly, quality engineers will be expected to use this data to inform their suggestions. As factories come to rely on this data for continuous improvement and quality assurance, QAs will need to understand–if not master–the use of large data sets and basic data science for quality related insights.

This data can help QEs predict changes in quality before they happen. One quality engineer noted how big data analytics helped their predictive efforts: “We used big data and analytics to predict early indications of deviations from the standard process and potential excursions. This would also provide us with information on possible next steps if an alert was received.”

Soft Skills–Just as important as big data analytics, if not more, are soft skills. Creative problem solving and people skills will help keep quality engineers central to any manufacturing operation.

As data scientists know, big data sets don’t solve problems by themselves. Messy data need to be gathered and organized. They require human intervention and interpretation. Quality engineers will increasingly do the hard, creative work that makes data analysis possible.

In order to succeed in Industry 4.0, quality engineers will need to be able to frame quantitative manufacturing problems. They will need to understand how a surplus of data can be marshaled to provide the insights they desire.

Communication will also be critical for the Industry 4.0 QE.

With new technology will come new questions, new areas for testing, and unknown unknowns. Quality engineers will find themselves in a position where they need to explain new concepts and initiatives to technical and lay audiences. They’ll:

  • Explain new tests and systems to associates
  • Communicate results to management
  • Justify the use or acquisition of new systems to procurement
  • Articulate increasingly complex work to a wide variety of stakeholders
  • Advocate on behalf of customers 
  • Mediate between stakeholders

Quality engineers who can navigate these personal relationships will help their operations get the most out of a digital transformation.

I4.0 Skills chart

Specific Industry 4.0 impacts

Beyond these general trends, there are several areas where industry 4.0 will impact quality engineers.

Improving the feedback loop–With better data will come better visibility into the full range of factory processes. This means quality engineers will be able to suggest areas for corrective and preventive action earlier and more accurately. Engineers will be able to see new relationships between each of the nodes in the feedback loop, and new mechanisms can be put in place to assure quality at every stage.

Improved prevention/Proactive maintenance–Data collected from IoT connected machines will help quality engineers prevent non-conformances and allow operators to repair machines and smooth processes before interruptions. Accelerated stress testing, Real Time Process monitoring, and sophisticated modeling tools will make quality engineering more proactive than reactive.

Root cause analysis–With more information and a connected factory, it will be easier for quality engineers to separate signal from noise, to identify the root cause of problems.

Integrated quality controls–Industry 4.0 will let the quality engineer integrate their quality controls into machines and processes in ways that exceed the capabilities of many Quality Management Systems (QMS). Artificial Intelligence, in particular, will help QEs design validation and QE systems that learn as they work, become more efficient and accurate with every iteration.

Looking Forward

The tone of the 2017 ASQ panel on Industry 4.0 was both anxious and excited. The participants expressed a fear that quality engineers might be made irrelevant if they fail to adapt. But there was also a sense that the role of quality professionals has never been more important, and that quality engineers have ample opportunity to make their mark in the new connected factory.

At Tulip, we tend to agree. While it may require some minor reskilling, it’s clear that quality engineers will be essential to the digital transformation.

Interested in how Tulip manufacturing apps can help Quality Engineers with their digital transformation? Try it free for 30 days here.