What is Quality 4.0 in manufacturing?

Last updated on April 3rd, 2024

Let’s start with a basic definition. 

Quality 4.0 is a term used to describe emerging industrial technologies and methods of quality control. This concept is part of the term we’re all familiar with: Industry 4.0 (or the fourth industrial revolution), characterized by the integration of digital technologies into manufacturing processes. 

Practically, Quality 4.0 has the same goals as traditional quality management—reducing defects, ensuring product reliability, and enhancing customer satisfaction—but adds new technology and methods to solve these problems. 

From a 10,000 foot view, Quality 4.0 represents a further “shift left” in quality management. Attention paid to quality will move away from being an afterthought at the end of the process into operational production, as well as process and product design. 

The American Society for Quality (ASQ) presents some value propositions for Quality 4.0 initiatives that should be considered. This article will focus more on the practical and tangible implications of Quality 4.0, and less on the theoretical aspects. 

Why does quality management need to be improved?

In the 1940’s, quality control emerged as a discipline of its own, where internationally recognized standards for quality, such as ISO, were created. Institutes such as ASQ began to formalize what it meant to be an expert on quality and offer training. Since then, quality control methods have advanced incrementally. Manufacturers were able to make great improvements in their product quality and operational efficiency over this period. 

Over the decades, it has become harder and harder for manufacturers to stay profitable. Expensive labour and materials, stringent environment and safety regulations, and increasing global competition have forced manufacturers to cut costs in other ways. One way they can do this is by improving quality and First Time Through yield (FTT). 

Luckily, the industrial digital transformation of the 21st century has ushered in a new wave of technology, which offers new possibilities for managing quality that were not available before. It is now possible to reduce scrap and rework beyond previously acceptable thresholds. 

What Industry 4.0 technology does Quality 4.0 use?

What are the new technologies that enable this? The following Industry 4.0 technologies have contributed to the development of Quality 4.0 tools: 

  • Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT): Using interconnected devices and sensors to monitor, collect, and analyze data in real time to improve quality and operational efficiency. 
  • Edge Computing: This involves processing data near the edge of the network, where the quality-related data is being generated, rather than in a centralized data-processing warehouse. Edge computing reduces the latency in data processing and is crucial for real-time applications such as IIoT. 
  • Artificial Intelligence (AI): Applying AI algorithms to improve quality prediction, automate complex processes, and enhance problem-solving capabilities. 
  • Machine Learning (ML): A subset of AI; however, while AI encompasses a broader goal of simulating intelligent behavior in machines, ML provides methods and algorithms that allow computers to learn from data and make decisions or predictions from manufacturing data. 
  • Advanced Data Science: Using statistics, visualization, and data analysis on large manufacturing quality data sets, including leveraging machine learning. 
  • Extended reality (XR): An umbrella term including Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and Mixed Reality (MR). 
  • Cloud Computing: Using cloud technology to store and analyze large quantities of quality data, enabling more agile and scalable quality management practices. 
  • Cybersecurity: Ensuring the protection of data and quality solutions in an increasingly interconnected environment. 

What Quality 4.0 tools are on the market?

The technologies listed above are quite generic to Industry 4.0. They are just the building blocks for new hardware and software solutions—or augmenting existing ones—that improve important manufacturing quality metrics. Some Quality 4.0 tools are more developed than others and will, over the coming years, mature and change as their effectiveness and ROI is tested in more factories. 

Here’s a condensed version of the five quality tools descriptions:

  • Predictive Quality Software: This software leverages machine learning and data science to proactively identify potential quality issues in manufacturing processes. It analyzes vast quantities of real-time data from the shop floor, enabling early defect detection and automated root cause analysis, enhancing proactive quality management.
  • Machine Vision Quality Inspection: Utilizing AI and computer vision, this technology automates the visual inspection process, identifying defects or assembly issues faster and more accurately than manual inspections.
  • Advanced QMS Software: Formerly known as tools for organizing qualitative quality data, some Modern QMS platforms now incorporate Quality 4.0 features such as cloud computing and AI to automate data analysis and workflows.
  • Digital Twins for Process Design: These virtual models simulate manufacturing processes and products, offering a testbed for design optimization and process tweaking without physical trials. They can enhance product manufacturability and optimizing process layouts. Using virtual quality testing in the design phase, downstream defects are prevented.
  • Extended Reality (XR) Systems for Quality: XR technologies like augmented reality (AR) enhance quality control by providing immersive, interactive guidance for quality inspections and process adherence. They offer innovative ways to augment human capabilities during quality checks, from providing digital overlays for comparison to capturing detailed visual documentation.

Where is Quality 4.0 used?

There are early adopters that are already making use of the above Quality 4.0 solutions. Some industries are not ready to adopt due to the needs of their business or the stage of quality maturity they are currently in. 

Manufacturing that involves complex automated processes and a requirement for precision are well positioned to adopt Quality 4.0 tools and methods. Aerospace, automotive, electronics, and medical manufacturers are great candidates. Today in 2024 they are likely already feeling pressure to incorporate Quality 4.0 to keep up with the high degree of competition in manufacturing. 

Because Quality 4.0 includes a large group of tools, not all of them will be useful for every type of manufacturing. For example, machine vision inspection can identify defects like soldering errors, missing components, misalignments, or incorrect part placements on printed circuit boards (PCBs). It may not work at all in chemical manufacturing. Smart manufacturers must assess the entire suite of available Quality 4.0 tools and make smart decisions about which ones will bring the best ROI in their unique situation. 

Who does Quality 4.0 affect the most?

Every stakeholder in the manufacturing process can benefit from implementing Quality 4.0 methods.  

  • Plant managers, VPs or directors of quality and operations will benefit from improving metrics like scrap rate, first time through, OEE, and warranty costs that lift their bottom line.
  • Quality, manufacturing, and process engineers and managers will need to perform fewer menial tasks, and deal with fewer unexpected quality events.
  • End consumers will benefit from better-designed, more reliable products.
  • Investors will benefit from more profitable businesses. 
  • The environment can also benefit from more efficient manufacturing processes that create less scrap and waste less energy.

Of course, long-time quality professionals like quality engineers are at the forefront of Quality 4.0 and will likely feel the most growing pains as the tools and technology are adopted. 

That is not a reason for them to fear Quality 4.0. 

Experienced quality professionals will find that their education and years of experience are merely augmented by new tools, not replaced. In fact, it is imperative that older generations of quality engineers, experts, and educators take an active role in guiding the way new technology is implemented. Only by sharing their hard-earned knowledge with technology companies can Quality 4.0 successfully produce products that will advance the field of quality.  

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