Smart inspections: time for a new pair of glasses

White paper | 29 Nov 2016

In a perfect world, inspections would be pointless and a pure waste of energy. Yet a perfect world with infallible people and systems does not exist. One needs to make a trade-off between the cost of inspections and the risk and cost of process failures.

For many decades, pen and paper have been the tools in every inspector’s pocket. Digital technology is about to make these tools obsolete, reshaping them into antiques of a soon to be forgotten past. Smart sensors, smart glasses and smart robots are the instruments for smart inspections in the Industry 4.0. These maturing technologies will fundamentally transform the inspection process as we have known it for so long.

Trust is good, but…

In a perfect world, inspections would be pointless and a pure waste of energy. Yet the perfect world does not exist and probably never will. Shedding the illusion of a perfect world, both Lenin and Franklin advocated for inspections from a different perspective. The former argued that “trust is good but control is better”. The latter coined the phrase “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. In a way, inspection processes are a search for the flaw in the system with the intention of eliminating the imperfections and strengthening the weak links, thus contributing to a better world.

Daily inspections of your assets for safety reasons. Quality controls of every product leaving your production line. Customers auditing your operations. Countless inspections, lengthy or short, are being executed for numerous reasons, every minute of every hour, by someone, somewhere in your company or business.

Fig. 1 illustrates some of the aspects of enterprise inspections with a breakdown of the subject, focus, reason and timing. While most inspections are done by the company’s operators and managers, government agencies, external auditors and customers regularly participate too.

Looking beyond the surface

From a lean operations point of view, inspections do not add value and could be considered a waste. But so are all efforts to correct errors. In the absence of a perfect world with infallible people and systems, one needs to make a trade-off between the cost of inspections and the cost of process failures.

Assuming inspections are a “necessary evil” for the greater good of our company’s processes and business in general, the challenge is to make the inspection processes themselves as lean as possible, with maximum effectiveness. But this doesn’t seem to be the case in reality. Inspections are triggering a slipstream of hidden costs with hardly any added value while their impact is often questionable. Are the controls truly leading to actions for improvement? Or are they merely a cover-up and a matter of bureaucratic compliance?

Once in a while it’s worth considering the administrative burden of inspection processes. How much time is spent on making, sharing and archiving inspection reports? Any idea how much this is contributing to your company’s mountain of paper? How much time is lost in searching for the exact historical data when running an audit? How much time do operators spend each day on re-entering paper form records into Excel and transforming them into graphs for management reports and presentations? How much effort is involved in registering, communicating and eventually solving any non-conformity detected during an inspection?

On the other hand, the effectiveness of quite a few inspections could be called into question, too. How many operators are ticking boxes after the fact or within seconds, just to be compliant? How many painstaking control records are buried in folders and dumped into a hole known as the archive? We plan and do plenty of controls, but the Deming circle sputters at the level of “check and act”. Who is truly verifying all of the control records and taking swift action for remediation or improvement?

The end of the inspection process as we know it

Although minds at many companies are starting to awaken to the potential of the Internet of Things and to the other forces of the Industry 4.0 (r)evolution, enterprise reality is still flooded with paper. For most inspection processes in business, paper forms are still the rule, while digital controls are the exception. This observation of the factory floor sharply contrasts with the reality of the consumer household where tablets and smartphones are articles of everyday use.

It does not require a vivid imagination to see the advantages of digital and mobile technology for a lean and effective execution of inspection processes. This technology makes it possible to shorten reaction times for solving non-conformity issues and it eliminates most of the non-value adding paper administration. These benefits need to outweigh the cost of the software, the implementation and the secure integration in the company’s information backbone. Because of the positive business case, mobile-based inspection platforms will gradually conquer the enterprise landscape. Yet there are good reasons why a few other Industry 4.0 technology molecules are about to energize control digitization, disrupting the inspection process as we know it today.

  1. Assisted by the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things and particularly smart sensors will be eliminating the need for some of today’s human controls. There is no longer a need for technicians to routinely inspect compressors or other installations when smart sensors are monitoring them 24/7 and constantly sending their data to the cloud. Predictive algorithms will determine if and when interventions or inspections are really needed. IoT technology will therefore reduce the number of routine inspections and determine the timing of the ones needed. Drones and robots are two other technology drivers of the Industry 4.0 evolution that will either assist or replace humans in future inspection processes.

  1. Hands-free support from a pair of smart glasses.

Maturing smart eyewear technology is providing inspection information and control requests in the blink of an eye, keeping the hands of the operator or inspector free. Hands-free on the spot recording of control results is another key advantage for the effective execution of many inspection activities. As pointed out in our whitepaper “Smart glasses? It’s all about perspective”, there are different categories of smart eyewear. Some devices merely allow the wearer to record video while others immerse the wearer in a virtual reality. Because of the nature of control work, the operator needs to have, first and foremost, his eyes on the subject being inspected. For that reason, smart glasses in the category “smart rear view mirror”, like the Google Glass, are most suited for this job. The operator’s eyes and mind are fully focused on the inspection of the object. Like a rear view mirror in a car, the Head-Mounted-Display (HMD) of the wearer’s glasses is discreetly positioned in the corner of his field of view. As needed, the display can provide info to or request input from the wearer with minimal distraction.

  1. You see what I see through a pair of smart glasses.

In addition to providing hands-free instruction and recording support for the wearer, smart glasses are opening up another perspective. The embedded cameras of the smart glasses make it possible to capture and stream the perspective of the wearer at work to a remote control room or expert. In this context, a pair of smart glasses acts as a mobile phone positioned on the wearer’s nose, facilitating bi-directional communication between the boots on the ground and the command center. Video streaming or internet based communication solutions for smart eyewear are set to become the “killer app” for inspection and control activities. The business case is obvious. Keeping the experts in a central control room to support many field technicians and inspectors whenever needed will leverage expensive and scarce expertise while eliminating the waste of non-value-adding travel.

All you need is a new perspective

For many decades, pen and paper have been the tools in every inspector’s pocket: cheap, easy and always at hand. Digital technology is about to ban these tools, reshaping them into the antiques of a soon to be forgotten past. Smart sensors, smart glasses and smart robots are the instruments for smart inspections in the Industry 4.0. These maturing technologies will fundamentally transform the inspection process as we have known it for so long. With the help of smart sensors and smart glasses, companies will be able to re-engineer many control processes. Inspections will be more effective and efficient, characterized by lean administration. For companies providing inspection services, this is the time to embrace these new technologies and to re-think their business models as their world is on the verge of disruption.