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A Brief History of Quality Management

Quality control, quality assurance, quality management, these are all terms anyone working in manufacturing is familiar with. In fact, quality is an integral part of all successful manufacturing regardless of what your product is. Whether you’re purchasing a new flat-screen television or an injection molding press to produce parts that will ultimately be used in that television, quality practices have played an important factor in both product’s manufacturing.

In the world of plastic injection molds, just like any other product, delivering a quality product is a practice that cannot be marginalized in any way. Every tool that we provide to our customers must be free from defect and as close to perfect as is reasonably attainable. If the tool doesn’t meet this criteria, our customer’s parts may be out of tolerance, or the tool may not be able to achieve cycle times needed to meet deadlines. But how do you assure quality when there is no acceptable defect rate? The only way to do so is by evaluating the processes and procedures utilized in the manufacturing progression and implement continuous improvement measures.

To better understand some of the history, let’s look into what led to our current quality practices in manufacturing. Many would argue that our modern quality practices can all be traced to three men, Walter A. Shewhart, PhD, Joseph Juran, and W. Edwards Deming, PhD. However, of the three, none were more vocal in applying these methods directly to manufacturing than Dr. Deming. During the early stages of WWII, Dr. Deming was tasked with consulting the Secretary of War. His recommendation during this consultation was to teach a course in the methods he learned while through collaboration with Dr. Shewhart. These, “Shewhart Methods,” were taught to engineers and managers in courses around the country. The curriculum that was developed would begin the application of quality management in United States manufacturing. These industries were working in an effort to support the most expensive conflict in the history of the planet while still battling the aftershocks of the Great Depression.

After the conclusion of WWII, Dr. Deming was selected to travel to Japan to study agricultural production and related problems for the Economic and Scientific Section of the War Department. He returned in 1948 to conduct additional studies for the occupying allied forces that had been left in Japan after the empire’s surrender. These were the first interactions between Dr. Deming, a man with a powerful vision of the future of manufacturing, and a people with the desire to rebuild their homeland.

The ideas and theories that Dr. Deming held regarding quality and statistical improvement, assisted him in persuading the young, future leaders of post-war Japanese industries. These bourgeoning leaders were looking for ways to combat the insistent and severe quality problems that had become synonymous with Japanese products. At the same time in the United States, our industry leaders were becoming complacent due to a toxic combination of the rapidly growing economy and zero global competition. This led to the extensive abandonment of the practices that Dr. Deming had been teaching. These were many of the same practices that had helped us manufacture with great efficiency during WWII.

Dr. Deming assisted the Japanese by enlightening them with his theories and practices. At the same time, the Japanese were eager to re-establish themselves as leaders in the post-war landscape. Ambitions and coupled with a search for renewed pride, these leaders led an industrial revolution in Japan that would shake the foundations of manufacturing throughout the world. The positive and rapid results of his methods led Dr. Deming to make a bold proclamation that the Japanese could capture the world market within five years. This in fact proved to be wrong when Deming was forced to declare, “They beat my prediction. I had said it would take five years, it took four.”

Dr. Deming made many subsequent trips to Japan over the years and developed an admiration for the people that he met there. As the practices that he had championed during the war effort were continually losing favor with manufacturing managers in the United States, Dr. Deming played a type of jet-set consultant that ultimately sent Japanese business and industry skyrocketing past other global competition as the economies of the world took their places in a vastly reduced theater.

Dr. Deming, still trying to get American industries to pay attention to the world around them, played witness to the cost of the brazen ignorance toward his initiatives that would ultimately lead the United States to concede their lead as the world’s industrial leader. While Japan excelled, eventually taking over the automotive and electronics industries, manufacturing in the United States held the status quo by continuing to build only for themselves with little regard paid to any improvement measures. Japan now controlled two of the largest industries of the 20th century. While some blamed labor costs, those who believed in the early quality and improvement practices knew the real factor responsible for the shift.

It wasn’t until a 1980 news report confirming the Japanese had in fact taken control of the global auto and electronics industries that people began to pay attention. American industrial leaders began to ask questions focused on how a tiny island nation, that just 35 years prior had been devastated by war, could make such drastic improvements in such a short time? These leaders found themselves finally addressing the need to deliver products to customers that were reliable and made free of defects while continually striving for improvements to processes and procedures.

Many of these influential industry leaders quickly discovered that it took a great deal more than just endlessly measuring or testing every single finished product. It actually required constant revisions focused on the procedures to identify and repair the underlying issue that is responsible for defects. Many quality initiatives followed which led the way to the establishment of ISO 9000 in 1987. These practices were now to be standardized throughout industry and have become a necessity for many in the global marketplace that has made up the last half of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

In the plastic mold building and custom machining industries we are no stranger to the positive influence of quality Japanese products. Most of us have had some experience around names like Makino, Mazak, and others. The application of process controls and improvements used by these equipment manufacturers are intrinsically no different. While many aspects of production quality practices do not apply in custom manufacturing, the need for constant improvements to processes and procedures are vital to keeping up in our economy today. There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to any quality program. But if you take the time to design the fit from the ground up, similar to the way you design a mold around a part, you can reap the benefits that helped build Japanese excellence and turned American reliability around.

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