Why First Article Inspection is important
What is a first article inspection?
When discussing the ‘first article’ I am not referring to the pre-production samples, but to the inspection of one of the very first pieces out of ‘real’ mass production.
By real mass production, I mean this piece has to be made in the same material and/or components, on the same equipment, by same people, etc. as mass production.
For instance, a company has an approved pre-production sample that is perfect and they go ahead with mass production based on that, only to find that during the process something has gone wrong and all pieces are defective. It does happen, including in the very best factories. The FAI is a safety net that detects those situations and prevents production to keep running…until the issue has been fixed, and another FAI confirms all is good.
What happens during an FAI?
Details will vary from one factory to the next, but the general steps are as follows:
- The requirements for a passed FAI are clear – for example, there is a checklist, an approved sample, and some testing equipment ready.
- There is a changeover or a production start.
- An operator, or a quality technician, sets the first piece(s) apart and checks it/them against requirements. This job typically goes into much more depth than other in-process quality checks.
- If all is good, production is allowed to keep running.
- If some issues are found, production must be halted until the point of cause is identified, a root cause is addressed, and another FAI shows the results are effective.
What issues does an FAI typically catch?
The following types of issues are most commonly detected:
- Wrong material/component
- Poorly positioned/loaded material/component
- Inconsistent quality of material/component
- Wrong processing equipment used
- Poorly set processing equipment
- Inability to confirm if a part is acceptable or not
For what types of productions is an FAI most needed?
It makes more sense when the products come out of the process one by one, or in small batches at a time, rather than in 1 large batch after long processing (e.g. making microprocessors or pharmaceutical pills — in those cases, there is far more emphasis on process controls and also the use of statistics).
Another important element is the degree of ‘reproducibility’ built into the process. If you make 2 types of cables, the process is numerically controlled, and you switch from one to the other several times a day, after some time you might decide not to do an FAI.
Finally, if a continuous sampling plan is in place, and if issues typically caught in an FAI would also be caught in a routine verification, there is no need for an FAI (it would be double work).
Why do many manufacturers skip this step?
There are mainly 3 reasons:
- To save a bit of time.
- Because they tend to be over-optimistic. They don’t anticipate potential issues. If they reflected on their past quality issues (and the amount of money they lost that way), they would probably conclude that it is worth the little extra time investment.
- Because their production operators are paid by the piece and want to work continuously in the same way on the same batch. They don’t want to do their setup, make 1 piece, and then wait a bit (or switch back to another job).