Combating contamination

Q: We want to ensure that we are receiving clean containers to package our products. How can we improve our incoming inspection process?

A: You should encourage your vendor to ship only clean containers. Then, be sure that the shipping and receiving process doesn’t cause contamination. If you can determine the source or sources of the contamination, the best fix is to remove the cause.

If that approach is not possible and you have incoming containers that may have some contamination, then consider the following elements in creating an efficient incoming inspection process.

1) How do you detect the contamination?

Apparently, you are able detect the container contamination prior to filling them, or are able to detect the effect of the contamination on the final product. Given that you are interested in creating an incoming test, let’s assume you have one or more ways to detect faulty units.

As you may already know, there are many ways to detect contamination. Some are faster than others, and some are non-destructive. Ideally, a quick non-destructive test would permit you to inspect every unit and to divert faulty units to a cleaning process. If the testing has to be destructive, then you’ll have to consider lot sampling of some sort.

There are many testing options. One is the optical inspection technique, which may find gross discoloration or large debris effectively. Avoid using human inspectors unless it’s only a short term solution, as we humans are pretty poor visual inspectors.

Another approach is using light to illuminate the contamination, such as a black light (UVA). Depending on the nature and properties of the contamination, you may be able to find a suitable light to quickly spot units with problems.

Another approach, which is more time consuming, is conducting a chemical swab or solution rinse and a chemical analysis to find evidence of contamination. If the contamination is volatile, you might be able to use air to “rinse” the unit and conduct the analysis. This chemical approach may require specialized equipment. Depending on how fast the testing occurs, this approach may or may not be suitable for 100 percent screening.

There may be other approaches for detecting the faulty units, yet without more information about the nature and variety of contamination, it’s difficult to make a recommendation. Ideally, a very fast, effective and non-destructive inspection method is preferred over a slow, error prone, and destructive approach. Cost is also a consideration, since any testing will increase the production costs. Finding the right balance around these considerations is highly dependent on the nature of the issue, cost of failure, and local resources.

2) How many units do you have to inspect?

Ideally, the sample size is zero as you would first find and eliminate the source of the problem. If that is not possible or practical, then 100 percent inspection using a quick, inexpensive, and effective method permits you to avoid uncertainties with sampling.

If the inspection method requires lot sampling, then all of the basic lot sampling guidelines apply. There are many references available that will assist you in the selection of an appropriate sampling plan based on your desired sampling risk tolerance levels.

Another consideration is the percentage of contaminated units per lot. If there is a consistent low failure rate per lot, then lot sampling may require relatively large amounts of tested units. You’ll have to determine the level of bad units permitted to pass through to production. Short of 100 percent sampling, it’s difficult (and expensive) to find very low percentages of “bad” units in a lot using destructive testing.

3) Work to remove original source(s) of contamination to permit you to stop inspections.

I stress this approach because it’s the most cost effective in nearly all cases. In my opinion, incoming inspection should be stopped as soon as possible since the process to create, ship and receive components should not introduce contamination and require incoming inspection to “sort” the good from the bad.

Fred Schenkelberg
Voting member of U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 56 on Reliability
Voting member of U.S. TAG to ISO/TC 69 on Applications of Statistical Methods
Reliability Engineering and Management Consultant
FMS Reliability

Related Resources:

Digging for the Root Cause, Six Sigma Forum Magazine, open access

Many Six Sigma practitioners use the term “root cause” without a clear concept of its larger meaning, and similar situations occur in Six Sigma training programs. As a result, many practitioners overlook root causes. Read more.

The Bug and the Slurry: Bacterial Control in Aqueous Products, ASQ Knowledge Center Case Study, open access

When a customer reported a problem using the polycrystalline diamond (PCD) slurry supplied by Warren/Amplex, the company traced its product through the supply chain in order to identify the cause and quickly implement a solution. Read more.

Explore the ASQ Knowledge Center for more case studies, articles, benchmarking reports, and more.

Browse articles from ASQ magazines and journals here.

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