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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

1. IN A NUTSHELL, WHAT IS OUTSOURCING FOR METROLOGY SERVICES?

Many inspection labs provide two types of measurement services, which both fall under the scope of inspection outsourcing. One is standard dimensional inspection service and the other is reverse engineering. The breakdown for our company is approximately 80% dimensional inspection and 20% in the area of reverse engineering.

Inspection outsourcing is when a manufacturing company (or in some cases, a parts distribution warehouse) sends parts and prints to a dimensional lab for dimensional verification. The company sends a part or parts and a blueprint for a quote. If the quote is acceptable, the company generates a PO and the work is performed. Sometimes the customer requires a full part layout (all dimensions measured) and other times, only selected (critical) dimensions are measured. Among other items, the final report will include a certificate and a report detailing all work performed and to what standards.

If a customer has a need for “reverse engineering,” they would send a part without the blueprint. In most instances, the company desires a CAD file, point cloud or other output. This information is then used to create a mold that will reproduce the part. The part can come to us in completed form, Styrofoam, clay or any other material that would be appropriate to make a scale model of the desired part. Sometimes the customer will send many parts of an assembly, each part requiring full dimensional evaluation. Please see http://www.qcinspect.com/rev.htm for more info on reverse engineering.

An example of a measuring system used for reverse engineering is the 3D laser scanner. With this scanner, we are able to scan a “patch” or segment of a surface or the entire surface. The scanner collects 3 dimensional data points, known as a point cloud. After the data (sometimes millions of data points) are all collected, the software “joins” or globally aligns the patches for a complete point cloud of the entire part. The point cloud is then converted to a solid model or surface file for future import into a CAD program.

2. WHAT ARE SOME ADVANTAGES TO OUTSOURCING?

The first three categories below show the obvious cost savings associated with outsourcing inspection work to outside labs. The others are examples of “value added” advantages.

Seasonal work or economic downturn: One large advantage in outsourcing, especially in this current economy, is lower employee costs. Many companies are choosing the flexibility of using our services as a temporary solution prior to making the commitment to hiring full time personnel.

Temporary overload: Our customers send parts to us for inspection when they have employees out on leave. During these times, there is a shortage of personnel, but the work still comes in! Rather than implementing mandatory overtime, many companies opt to send us their parts for inspection.

Short term projects: When a client receives a project that requires more equipment than they currently have, they can outsource the inspection portion of the project rather than buying an expensive CMM. Then, when the job starts to look more “permanent,” the clients can re-evaluate the need for their own CMM. Here’s the real clincher: In addition to the initial cost of a new CMM (up to hundreds of thousands of dollars), there are other costs... like an environmentally controlled CMM room, design and manufacture of holding fixtures, the need to hire a dedicated technician and on-going training for the new CMM programmer.

Lack of expertise: Many companies, especially small to mid sized companies do not have the experienced specialists to perform the work. In our Minnesota facility, our staff has a combined 234 years manufacturing and quality experience. Most of our specialists are experts at programming and measuring parts on CMMs. In a nutshell, this is all we do, all day long – we’re the experts! Another point to be made in this area is that most of the jobs we receive from our customers are jobs that they don’t want to do themselves mostly due to the complexity of the project!

Third Party evaluation: Many times, there may be a disagreement between a manufacturer and their supplier relating to the function or characteristic of a part. An arbitrator, or other acting intermediary contracts us as an accredited lab to measure the part or parts in question, whether at our facility, or somewhere else. Using a third party inspection service, the results are unbiased.

3. WHO OUTSOURCES? ARE THE COMPANIES TYPICALLY SMALL, LARGE, MID-SIZED, ALL OF THE ABOVE?

Companies of every size outsource inspection work. In our case, we have worked with small, medium and large fortune 500 companies. The average company for us is a medium sized company with 50-200 employees.

Industries served are medical, plastics, automotive, telecommunications, aerospace, defense, electronics and others. During this current “down” economy, the medical and leisure (believe it or not) are doing the most outsourcing.

4. HOW DOES OUTSOURCING WORK? DO YOU SEND PEOPLE TO THEIR SITE OR DO THEY SEND YOU THEIR EQUIPMENT?

Our in-house (our lab) inspection work, where clients will send their parts to our lab for evaluation and how it is done, is addressed in question #1.

In addition to parts being sent to us, in many cases, we take our portable CMM to our customers’ facilities. A typical scenario for this is large part measurement using our portable CMM. This is a “6 jointed” arm that can be used to measure larger objects such as boats, small planes, tractor cabs, street sweepers and other very large parts. Even though we only have a six-foot “reach” with this CMM, we can utilize “leap frog” technology. This is where the technician will measure all features within the reach of the CMM, then measure three reference spheres (affixed to the part being measured), move the CMM to its new location, re-measure the same reference spheres and magically, the CMM “knows” where it is again! Now, we can go on measuring the rest of the part!

One notable difference between portable measurement and measurement using our in-house measurement equipment is in the area of accuracy. The accuracies of our non-portable CMMs are in the area of .0002” (on the average). But using a portable CMM, due to the “portability” factor, we are only achieving .003” to .004” accuracy (average).

5. WHAT SHOULD A COMPANY CONSIDER WHEN ASSESSING WHETHER OR NOT IT SHOULD OUTSOURCE?

As companies evaluate whether or not to send out parts to us, some of the factors include cost, lead-time and others. Can we do the work soon enough for their needs? Is the lab accredited to any known reputable standards? (Ex. ISO, A2LA, etc.) Expertise is a major consideration – does this lab have the people with the experience and knowledge? Does the inspection company have the appropriate equipment? Is it accurate enough? How old is the equipment? How long has the lab been operating?

6. HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO OUTSOURCE?

Normally, projects such as dimensional inspection projects or white light scanning projects can range from $45 per hour (just simple hand tool or sorting operations) to $120 per hour for our most advanced equipment. In cases where we need to travel, of course they would reimburse us at cost. Most jobs we quote, where all of the variables are known, we provide a firm quote. But, if there are unknown variables, we will do a “time-and-materials” quote.

The cost also depends on the complexity of the project. Some outsourcing jobs that we have done would be more appropriately called Managed Projects. This is where we will perform sorting operations and other operations in our own facility using our managers, our procedures and our equipment.

For example, we did a major, long-term managed project for a company in Minnesota. We hired seven technicians to perform sorting operations using microscopes in a “class 10,000” clean room environment. After initial start-up costs, the ongoing cost for this project was approximately $25 per hour per technician. We have performed many of these projects – at our facility and at our customers’ facilities.

7. WHEN IS OUTSOURCING A DISADVANTAGE?

Sometimes the location of the lab can be a disadvantage if the lab is located in a different state. One disadvantage can be in the area of communication.  Another is in shipping costs.

Even though there are some possible drawbacks to sending parts to a lab in a different part of the country, they can be easily overcome. With next day delivery, the time (shipping) factor becomes negligible. Also, using email, digital photography and other new technologies, communication with the customer is much less a problem.

Another example of where outsourcing may not be conducive is where the manufacturing company must make a “lot” of, say, 1000 parts. They need an in-process inspection check on the location of a hole, and they need to measure it after every 40th part. Here is where they need to find a way to measure the part in their own facility, maybe right there at their own machine. It would be difficult to send out the part, wait for the results from the outside lab while the machine is NOT running, and then continue machining parts when the results arrive. We have done this for customers in the past, but only when they absolutely could not do it themselves!

We have seen an increase in companies outside of our state sending projects to us, usually based on referrals. In fact, in the last two years we have done jobs for companies in 31 states (only 59% of inspection jobs are in our home state, Minnesota).

8. CAN YOU GIVE AN EXAMPLE OF ONE OUTSOURCING PACKAGE YOUR COMPANY OFFERS, INCLUDING THE TIME IT TAKES, THE PRICE, THE SERVICES, ETC.?

An example of a client utilizing a full range of our inspection lab services is a very large software firm out of Redmond, Washington. It is difficult to relate the price because there were so many services provided for them on so many different part types over an extended period of time. Hopefully, this example below will help:

First, our client utilized our inspection and reverse engineering services by using our CMMs to measure their molds (used to make mice, keyboards, etc.). We also created blueprints for some of their parts after “reverse engineering” them.

Prior to actually measuring their parts we had do design holding fixtures* to hold the part at the correct “datums” so that the CMM could measure the part accurately. We then did a full “First Article” inspection on some of their initial parts.

We designed and created dimensional inspection fixtures (not holding fixtures) to measure “critical” dimensions on the parts as they are being produced at their supplier’s facility, and wrote in-process inspection procedures for their staff and their supplier’s staff.

We then designed, manufactured and validated multiple inspection fixtures – one for us, one for their overseas supplier and one for their own use. To validate these fixtures, we performed a gage repeatability and reproducibility study (Gage R&R) on each fixture.

*A note on holding fixtures: It is very important when measuring the same parts, say, next month as you measured today to have the ability to locate the part in exactly the same way as the first time it was measured, especially on a CMM. To that end (or should I say beginning) we sometimes need to first design and build (and sometimes verify dimensionally) holding fixtures. This increases the cost of the project slightly, but most of the time we can use our set of universal fixturing to hold the client’s part. This universal fixture provides the X and Y coordinates of the “building blocks” (like and erector set), which are used to position the part appropriately. These coordinates and building block set-up are then recorded in the customer’s file for future use in repeat jobs.

9. WHAT ARE SOME OF THE MAIN DIFFERENCES BETWEEN INSPECTION LABS?

Some things potential clients should look for when evaluating which lab to send their parts to are, number of years in business, combined experience of their specialists, certification of lab technicians (are they CMI certified?), whether or not the lab is accredited and to what extent the lab is environmentally controlled. Some “labs” are actually located in a garage or pole barn!

Is the inspection company a CMM seller who performs inspection on the side? (This is a very important and unobvious question – sometimes the CMM that the seller used to measure the part has been sold, and a different CMM will be used to measure the next “round” of parts to be inspected. Now, the “uncertainty” value of the CMM is different.)

Does the lab have a good reputation? Always ask for a list of references and check them out. What is their policy on the training of their staff? Are the “uncertainty values” known for each piece of equipment? Do they participate in “round robins” to validate their claims of accuracy?

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