Operational qualification (OQ) challenges; Cpk v.s. AQL

Q: We’re completing a validation of a plastic extrusion process, which has raised a few questions with me.

 This validation exercise encompasses the installation qualification (IQ), operational qualification (OQ), and the performance qualification (PQ). The IQ is self explanatory, but the OQ is challenging. The process is dependent on the batch resin properties which vary enough that the extrusion processing parameters cannot be setup where good parts are always produced. One resin batch can use processing parameters that will not work with the next batch. A justification will be written and included in the documentation package to explain this. Does the inability of defining an operating window void or limit the validation?

My second question has to do with PQ acceptance criteria. The PQ will be three production runs using at least two different material resins (the largest source of variation). While production acceptance will be on an AQL=1.0, C=0 basis, these initial validation lots will be accepted on a process capability index (Cpk) level. While on the surface the acceptance difference may seem benign, it is causing some changes. The tolerance is such that the process routinely passes the Acceptable Quality Limit (AQL) test criteria but fails a Cpk requirement. Is it possible to accept PQ runs as they would be accepted in production?

A related question is the power of a Cpk vs. an AQL sampling plan. A Cpk value can be calculated using the same number of samples on a 100-foot run vs. a 10,000-foot run, while an AQL sampling plan is size dependant. Is there a criterion on sample size or a rule of thumb as to when one plan should be used over another?

A: First, the plastic extrusion process is always a tricky one to qualify simply because each new batch of resin always requires adjustments no matter how controlled the storage conditions are. So yes, you will have to define what adjustments your organization has to make and how big an operating window you need to transition from batch to batch.  If you can demonstrate that it can be resolved within a certain time (say, 15-30 minutes), then it should be ok for validation.  This is assuming that the customer is in agreement with what your company is doing. 

The second question is a bit more difficult in that the Cpk is assuming that the process is in control and performing at a steady rate.  Cpk is a long term measure and requires the use of control charts to really control the process.  You may be able to work with your customer on help to get validated to the Cpk requirement, but you have to show the plan to get here.  In the past, some customers have been willing to provide an extended period to attain validation. You may want to talk to your customer representative to find out what help they can provide.

The third question gets to the fundamental heart of the situation: the question of using Cpk vs. AQL.  Cpk is a measure of process capability and AQL is a measure of long-term, outgoing quality.  Are they the same?  On some studies I did early on with Cpk and specifications, it was not always clear.  I have not seen any criterion on sample size on when to use Cpk vs. AQL. 

Jim Bossert
SVP Process Design Manger, Process Optimization
Bank of America
Fort Worth, TX

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