INSIDE CI: Beyond the Minimum

Over the past decade, as U.S. and European manufacturers have struggled to find a competitive edge in the throes of enormous pricing pressures, it has become all too easy to relegate the idea of quality to a lesser status. Sure, it would be nice if products could meet the highest possible standard all the time...but if you can save a little here and a little there by using lower-cost raw materials and scrimping on operations and personnel, certainly the savings is well worth a small compromise. After all, doesn't everyone expect some defects and recalls now and then?

And maybe that's the problem. Sub-par quality has become the norm, rather than the exception, for virtually everything we buy. Automobile recalls seem to occur on a monthly basis these days, and consumers are snapping up extended warranties sold by retailers on electronics, appliances and other items to gain some additional piece of mind. The days when products were made to last are long gone, replaced by a much more "disposable" mentality.

In the consumer sector, some of this attitude is driven by the consumers themselves. Tableware buyers are no longer looking for expensive heirloom sets that can be displayed in china cabinets and handed down to the next generation; instead, many people want a fun, casual pattern that they can replace in two or three years when they redecorate. In the automotive market, leases are extremely popular because of the ability to trade an "old" vehicle for a new one every few years. Who cares about defects when the manufacturer's warranty will cover the product for the entire length of the lease?

But in numerous other markets, particularly in the high-tech and industrial fields, quality still counts. If you consistently provide your customers with defective, poorly performing products, eventually they will look elsewhere. Compromises on quality might not catch up to your company right away, but you have to assume it will only be a matter of time, especially as manufacturers in lower manufacturing cost regions continue to improve their quality standards.

Fortunately, new analysis tools continue to be developed to help manufacturers accurately assess-and continuously improve-their materials and products while also saving time and money on operations. For example, modern particle characterization instruments can allow operators to accurately analyze samples within minutes, so that any material-related problems can be corrected before defective products are produced. (See the article written by Michael L. Strickland of Micromeritics Instrument Corp. on pp. 12-17 in this issue.) Likewise, advanced quality analysis techniques are enabling rapid and easy bulk density and pore volume analyses to be performed, thereby helping companies catch defects before products are shipped to their customers. (See the article written by Martin Thomas of Quantachrome Instruments on pp. 18-21.)

Quality shouldn't be a compromise. With the right analysis tools, it doesn't have to be.

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