Quality Control Gets Roll Goods Into Shape

August 17, 2005

QC is rapidly evolving as it proves it can stand up to consumers’ demands and keep up to speed with technology

In keeping up with the high demands of consumers and manufacturers, the latest in machinery technology has allowed roll goods products to be manufactured at unwavering speeds. Unfortunately, these faster production capabilities also bring with them a slew of opportunities for errors to be made during production. The slightest irregularity formed in a product during production can be costly for manufacturers, creating excess scrap material and the possibility of thousands of products going to waste. Therefore manufacturers of all kinds in the nonwovens industry are depending on quality control testing as a key element of their production equation. This technology has proven to be a worthwhile investment, since it is capable of detecting beyond obvious mistakes while keeping up with rapid production speeds. Today, it seems that there are quality control testing machines for nearly every defect one can possibly think of—from scratches, ink lay-downs and static build-up to measuring a product’s basis weight and air permeability to testing for pilling in the material.

Technically, quality control has been around for as long as nonwovens manufacturing and production. However it did not always involve machinery but instead relied on human inspection, resulting in many overlooked areas. In recent years, quality control equipment has given manufacturers more reliable and accurate results, catching flaws during the earliest possible stages and continuing with this high level of inspection from start to finish throughout the entire production process.

“The introduction of automated inspection provides 100% objective, measurable inspection that is consistent over time,” said Werner Goeckel, president of Lasor/Systronics, Norcross, GA. “Manufacturers are looking for a solutions provider that cannot only provide robust inspection hardware but also the service support necessary for a total solution. A new level of reliability is achieved with this equipment. The bottom line is to lower manufacturing costs and reduce returns.”

According to Alan Lavore, sales and marketing manager at Mahlo America, Spartanburg, SC, some advantages of quality control include: reducing the costs associated with producing rejected material, helping to maximize the use of raw material consumption, reducing manual labor, assisting in providing a uniform end product with tighter tolerances and reduces claims in the field for rejected material.

Web Inspection Tops Lists
One of the most common and necessary pieces of quality control equipment is the web and surface inspection testing machine. Web inspection systems use high-speed digital cameras to inspect the moving nonwoven or paper web for defects. The cameras then build a map of the product defects so they can be removed at a rewind station. Web inspection allows manufacturers to see things on the surface of webs or something that is embedded inside them. Some common defects that these machines are capable of finding include: eyebrows, dirt, holes, broken filaments, bond point fusions, light or dark spots, streaks, clumps, contamination, polymer drips and melt blown filament drops.

Cognex Corporation, Natick, MA, builds surface inspection systems for both web defect identification and process control. “We have some companies who will not start up a new line without web inspection. It manages cost,” said John Riccardi, Cognex’s business development manager. “Manufacturers are looking for technology that finds defects, photo images them, classifies them and maps the defects.” Many manufacturers will agree that web inspection can stand up to such demands. Since the worldwide competition of quality control testing has increased, consumers are not only demanding more, but they are also more knowledgeable about the entire process. Therefore, they are not going to settle for a product that does not do a good job. Like Cognex, Lasor/ Systronics’ core business is web inspection for the nonwovens, plastic, paper and textiles industries. The company is a worldwide, multitechnology manufacturer of vision-based, surface inspection equipment that integrates scan cameras and lasor technology and/or a combination of both into a turnkey inspection solution.

“In response to the needs of the nonwovens marketplace, we added defect visualization, two-dimensional filtering and formation analysis to the basic system,” said Mr. Goeckel. Mr. Goeckel noted that since higher quality and cost reduction are two factors pushing the growth in quality control, in the future the pressure to reduce costs will only increase, making vision inspection a necessity.

It’s Showtime For QC

Before being used, quality control equipment must also stand up to rigorous testing by standards organizations. When a new testing machine enters the market, it typically receives its fair share of tests, which can sometimes take up to three to five years to complete. Some of today’s nonwovens manufacturers have to start using a new quality control machine almost immediately upon release in order to keep up with the newest technologies so they sometimes can not afford to wait for the equipment to get thoroughly inspected. In other words, quality control testing machinery is often playing a game of catch-up to technologies out on the market—by the time QC equipment has been tested, approved and ready for inspection, new equipment for the same application will already be in the making.

Michael Kaye, technical and marketing manager of textile testing instruments manufacturer James H. Heal & Co., Halifax, West Yorkshire, U.K., said, “The international standards committees are generally seeking to harmonize national standards and establish methods on a scientific and engineering basis, which are not manufacturer specific.”

Advanced Testing Instruments, Greer, SC, a supplier of testing equipment for physical and color fastness testing, has recently introduced several new quality control testing machines. One of these, ATI’s “TruBurst” intelligent bursting strength tester, was used almost immediately after its release, due to an early stamp of approval. TruBurst is capable of measuring a burst pressure up to 1250 kPa and features an automatic diaphragm correction of up to 70 mm.

“TruBurst met the ISO 13938-2 standards and received almost instant approval,” said Tim Ziegenfus, president of ATI. “This standard calls for the measurement of distension as well as pressure at burst and specifies an accuracy of plus/minus 1 mm up to a distension of 70 mm, for testing elastomeric and similar fabrics.

Mocon, Minneapolis, MN, is a fairly new face to the quality control market, having only been involved for four years, but the company has developed a quality control instrument that was quick to meet standards issued by INDA, The Association of the Nonwoven Fabrics Industry, Cary, NC. Mocon’s “Permatran-W Model 100K,” is a QC instrument that can overcome physical limitations to achieve a true reading of the transmission rate of material. “Many users around the world are using this instrument in their research and development efforts as they strive to develop materials with higher breathability,” said Doug Lindenmann, vice president and general manger of the company’s permeation instruments division.

Although achieving certain certifications, such as ISO 9000, doesn’t necessarily mean the machine is perfect, some machines are coming closer to being perfect today than they ever were in the past, opined Lasor Systronics’ Mr. Goeckel.

“Until recently, there have been very few 100% automated inspection systems that could meet the total needs of the nonwovens manufacturer,” Mr. Goeckel. “However, technology has advanced with a new generation of high-speed processors and software enhancement. These advancements have enabled manufacturers to tighten their specifications and provide higher quality material through better inspection technology. It also provides the end user greater confidence that the material received is defect-free.”

Since quality control has evolved into more of a necessity for many manufacturers, costs have subsequently begun to decrease. Like many other products that first enter into the market, prices for quality control testing instruments were high at first but have since lowered. Additionally, the amount of detection a quality control machine can achieve saves manufacturers the headache of dealing with wasted products and consumer dissatisfaction. Hence, these products pay for themselves over time.

Controlling Costs
Similar to many other industries, nonwovens have experienced consolidation and globalization, which requires more efficiency as markets become more competitive. The growth in the quality control market has been driven by its ability to improve quality and reduce costs. “Automated inspection systems have become a greater factor in the efficiency effort to further cut costs and expand profitability,” Mr. Goeckel said. “Every nonwovens manufacturer wants to have effective control of his/her system, which is difficult to achieve without 100% inspection.”

Along with manufacturers’ demands, consumers are willing to sacrifice a few extra dollars to get a product with true quality, although this wasn’t always the case, according to ATI’s Mr. Ziegenfus. “Quality control was a major factor in the textile industry for decades. Unfortunately, the American consumer has embraced large discount stores,” explained Mr. Ziegenfus. “These stores sell their products based on low price and not the quality of their products. This has forced some manufacturers to sacrifice quality to price. Recently we have seen a reversal of this trend. The consumer has grown tired of inexpensive or poor quality products and is now willing to pay a little more for a quality product, as long as they do truly get a quality product.”

Although the actual price of one quality control testing instrument can sometimes seem costly, with prices running around $80,000, manufacturers agree that, in the long run, the benefits of these machines can outweigh the overall cost.

“Using the capabilities of the product saves many times this dollar amount in customer satisfaction,” said Brian Heil, managing partner of NANOSystems, Gainesville, GA. “It is the result of quality control equipment that provides the most benefit. Quality control offers increased yields, improved processes and the ability to enter in new markets. Quality control capital spending is a business decision that affects product development, the supply chain, manufacturing and marketing.”

Russell Crompton, president of SDL America, Charlotte, NC has witnessed the role competition plays when cost is involved. SDL is both a manufacturer and supplier of textile testing and laboratory equipment and has more than 400 products used worldwide. “Competition is driving the growth, and the company with successful quality control results will win over orders against others who do not,” he explained.

Competition has lead companies in developing countries as well as smaller firms to jump on the quality control bandwagon. Smaller companies may not manufacture as many products as larger roll goods companies, but they do need to have their products inspected.

“Global market competition is forcing manufacturers to upgrade the efficiency of old assets to produce more competitive quality products in order to sell against newer technology lines,” said Cognex’s Mr. Riccardi. “In some ways, quality control is developing more quickly in developing areas, because there is no trained, experienced, operational base. They are installing turnkey machines on greenfield sites. The need to get operational overnight makes this technology a crucial element to both operation effectiveness and product qualification.

Hector Marchand, vice president of marketing at NDC Infrared, Irwindale, CA believes that developing markets aren’t as much of a threat to the current market. “First, they come to the market with ‘cheap’ products that use older equipment and cheap labor. If they want to become world-class players, however, they need to make the investment in modern manufacturing and testing equipment. Presently we are seeing China emerge in this way, as the region invests heavily in new high-output machinery and state-of-the-art inspection equipment.”

Smaller companies may not mass produce as many products as larger companies, but they are still initially supplying to the same market, which, therefore, still requires a need for quality control testing machines. Some smaller companies, however, may produce more specialized products, which require smaller production lines since they are not producing such large amounts. This sets the stage for a new demand in quality control equipment: to become more flexible for smaller production lines.

“Smaller companies are finding they must invest in high-quality testing instruments,” said ATI’s Tim Ziegenfus. “Common customers are demanding not only the same quality but are also requiring the use of the same equipment worldwide.”

If small companies have more specialized product lines, they can supply these to different customers, or, they can provide similar products from already-existing manufacturing lines. “By acquiring quality control technology, a producer can provide similar products from the existing manufacturing line to new customers and new markets at higher selling prices, providing shareholders a higher return on investment,” NANOSytems’ Mr. Heil explained.

As more smaller companies begin to integrate QC into their production set-ups, larger companies are going to continue to come up with newer inspection systems to stay in the game.

Up And Coming QC
Quality control testing is showing no signs of slowing down in the future because it has turned into a booming market within itself. As new markets worldwide begin using and supplying quality control testing equipment, manufacturers are focusing on keeping up with consumers’ demands within this market. With consumers being more knowledgeable, their demands are on the rise; they want a quality control machine to keep up with the trends in nonwovens technology and this, in turn, allows consumers to stay afloat in the competitive market.

“A nonwovens producer wants a quality control system with easy in-line integration and production processes, a modular structure to answer specific detection and space efficiency,” opined Lasor/Systronics’ Mr. Goeckel.

Lasor/Systronics’ new quality control technology is currently centered around detecting defects in nonwoven fabrics by using two-dimensional filtering. According to company executives, this technology enables the operator to see subtle defects in a very “noisy” background. A series of two-dimensional filters differentiates between defects and what is a normal background. The company’s “Advanced Defect Classification” software enables an operator to further distinguish breakdown effects, such as drips, clumps, eyebrows and stains. Another feature of this new software is the picture that displays the defect can to be enlarged on a roll map for immediate analysis and correction. By making the correction early in the production process, the material is able to be kept at a higher standard.

Higher standards and lower costs are two of the most notable trends happening now in the quality control industry, but these inspection systems are also being produced with other useful features, such as the ability to process things in real time and share data among other machines.

“The biggest trend after scale-down in size and cost of systems is the quality control machine’s ability to share data—both real time data between the process and control and quality systems, as well as historic archiving for the future,” explained NDC’s Hector Marchand.

Cognex’s Mr. Riccardi believes in order for market leaders to keep with the recent trend of consolidation, market leaders will have to generate their cash flows to maintain research and development levels and also keep these two consistent with innovation and leadership. Quality control indeed seems to be on the fast track, with no intention of slowing down.

“Quality control is becoming important to every company both big and small as business opportunities continue to get more competitive and manufacturers look for ways in which to differentiate themselves and their products from the competition,” opined Mahlo America’s Alan Lavore.