Quality Control Engineer

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Overview

Quality control engineers plan and direct procedures and activities that will ensure the quality of materials and goods. They select the best techniques for a specific process or method, determine the level of quality needed, and take the necessary action to maintain or improve quality performance. Quality control technicians assist quality control engineers in devising quality control procedures and methods, implement quality control techniques, test and inspect products during different phases of production, and compile and evaluate statistical data to monitor quality levels.

History

Quality control technology is an outgrowth of the industrial revolution, which began in England in the 18th century. Each person involved in the manufacturing process was responsible for a particular part of the process. The worker’s responsibility was further specialized by the introduction of manufacturing with interchangeable parts in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In a manufacturing process using this technique, a worker concentrated on making just one component, while other workers concentrated on creating other components. Such specialization led to increased production efficiency, especially as manufacturing processes became mechanized during the early part of the 20th century. It also meant, however, that no one worker was responsible for the overall quality of the product. This led to the need for another kind of specialized production worker whose primary responsibility was not one aspect of the product but rather its overall quality.

This responsibility initially belonged to the mechanical engineers and technicians who developed the manufacturing systems, equipment, and procedures. After World War II, however, a new field emerged that was dedicated solely to quality control. Along with specially trained persons to test and inspect products coming off assembly lines, new instruments, equipment, and techniques were developed to measure and monitor specified standards.

At first, quality control engineers and technicians were primarily responsible for random checks of products to ensure they met all specifications. This usually entailed testing and inspecting either finished products or products at various stages of production.

During the 1980s, a renewed emphasis on quality spread across the United States. Faced with increased global competition, especially from Japanese manufacturers, many U.S. companies sought to improve quality and productivity. Quality improvement concepts such as Total Quality Management (TQM), Six Sigma, continuous improvement, quality circles, and zero defects gained popularity and changed the way in which companies viewed quality and quality control practices. A new philosophy emerged, emphasizing quality as the concern of all individuals involved in producing goods and directing that quality be monitored at all stages of manufacturing, not just at the end of production or at random stages of manufacturing.

Today, most companies focus on improving quality during all stages of production, with an emphasis on preventing defects rather than merely identifying defective parts. There is an increased use of sophisticated automated equipment that can test and inspect products as they are manufactured. Automated equipment includes cameras, X rays, lasers, scanners, metal detectors, video inspection systems, electronic sensors, and machine vision systems that can detect the slightest flaw or variance from accepted tolerances. Many companies use statistical process control to record levels of quality and determine the best manufacturing and quality procedures. Quality control engineers and technicians work with employees from all departments of a company to train them in the best quality methods and to seek improvements to manufacturing processes to further improve quality levels.

Many companies today are seeking to conform to international standards for quality, such as ISO 9000, in order to compete with foreign companies and to sell products to companies around the world. These standards are based on concepts of quality of industrial goods and services and involve documenting quality methods and procedures.

The Job

Quality control engineers are responsible for developing, implementing, and directing processes and practices that result in a desired level of quality for manufactured parts. They identify standards to measure the quality of a part or product, analyze factors that affect quality, and determine the best practices to ensure quality.

Quality control engineers set up procedures to monitor and control quality, devise methods to improve quality, and analyze quality control methods for effectiveness, productivity, and cost factors. They are involved in all aspects of quality during a product’s life cycle. Not only do they focus on ensuring quality during production operations, they are also involved in product design and evaluation. Quality control engineers may be specialists who work with engineers and industrial designers during the design phase of a product, or they may work with sales and marketing professionals to evaluate reports from consumers on how well a product is performing. Quality control engineers are responsible for ensuring that all incoming materials used in a finished product meet required standards and that all instruments and automated equipment used to test and monitor parts during production perform properly. They supervise and direct workers involved in assuring quality, including quality control technicians, inspectors, and related production personnel.

Quality control technicians work with quality control engineers in designing, implementing, and maintaining quality systems. They test and inspect materials and products during all phases of production in order to ensure that they meet specified levels of quality. They may test random samples of products or monitor production workers and automated equipment that inspect products during manufacturing. Using engineering blueprints, drawings, and specifications, they measure and inspect parts for dimensions, performance, and mechanical, electrical, and chemical properties. They establish tolerances, or acceptable deviations from engineering specifications, and they direct manufacturing personnel in identifying rejects and items that need to be reworked. They monitor production processes to ensure that machinery and equipment are working properly and are set to established specifications.

Quality control technicians also record and evaluate test data. Using statistical quality control procedures, technicians prepare charts and write summaries about how well a product conforms to existing standards. Most importantly, they offer suggestions to quality control engineers on how to modify existing quality standards and manufacturing procedures. This helps to achieve the optimum product quality from existing or proposed new equipment.

Quality control technicians may specialize in any of the following areas: product design, incoming materials, process control, product evaluation, inventory control, product reliability, research and development, and administrative applications. Nearly all industries employ quality control technicians.              

Requirements

High School

To prepare for this career, you should take high school classes in mathematics (including algebra, geometry, and statistics), physical sciences, physics, and chemistry. You should also take shop, mechanical drawing, and computer courses. In addition, you should take English courses that develop your reading skills, your ability to write well-organized reports with a logical development of ideas, and your ability to speak comfortably and effectively in front of a group.

Postsecondary Training

Quality control engineers generally have a bachelor’s degree in engineering. Many quality control engineers receive degrees in industrial or manufacturing engineering. Some receive degrees in metallurgical, mechanical, electrical, chemical engineering, or business administration, depending on where they plan to work. College engineering programs vary based on the type of engineering program. Most programs take four to five years to complete and include courses in mathematics, physics, and chemistry. Other useful courses include statistics, logistics, business management, and technical writing.

Educational requirements for quality control technicians vary by industry. Most employers of quality control technicians prefer to hire applicants who have received some specialized training. A small number of positions for technicians require a bachelor of arts or science degree. In most cases, though, completion of a two-year technical program is sufficient. Students enrolled in such a program at a community college or technical school take courses in the physical sciences, mathematics, materials control, materials testing, and engineering-related subjects.

Certification or Licensing Although there are no licensing or certification requirements designed specifically for quality control engineers or technicians, some need to meet special requirements that apply only within the industry employing them. Many quality control engineers and technicians pursue voluntary certification from professional organizations to indicate that they have achieved a certain level of expertise. The American Society for Quality (ASQ), for example, offers certification at a number of levels including quality engineer certification (CQE) and quality technician certification (CQT). Requirements include having a certain amount of work experience, having proof of professionalism (such as being a licensed professional engineer), and passing a written examination. Many employers value this certification and take it into consideration when making new hires or giving promotions.

Other Requirements

Quality control engineers need scientific and mathematical aptitudes, strong interpersonal skills, and leadership abilities. Good judgment is also needed, as quality control engineers must weigh all the factors influencing quality and determine procedures that incorporate price, performance, and cost factors.

Quality control technicians should do well in mathematics, science, and other technical subjects and should feel comfortable using the language and symbols of mathematics and science. They should have good eyesight and good manual skills, including the ability to use hand tools. They should be able to follow technical instructions and make sound judgments about technical matters. They should have orderly minds and be able to maintain records, conduct inventories, and estimate quantities.                  

Exploring

Quality control engineers and technicians work with scientific instruments; therefore, you should take academic or industrial arts courses that introduce you to different kinds of scientific or technical equipment. You should also take electrical and machine shop courses, mechanical drawing courses, and chemistry courses with lab sections. Joining a radio, computer, or science club is also a good way to gain experience and to engage in team-building and problem-solving activities. Active participation in clubs is a good way to learn skills that will benefit you when working with other professionals in manufacturing and industrial settings. To find out more about engineering in general, join the Junior Engineering Technical Society (JETS), which will give you the opportunity to test your skills and meet professionals and others interested in engineering, math, and science. (Visit the JETS Web site at http://www.jets.org.)

You should keep in mind that quality control activities and quality control professionals are often directly involved with manufacturing processes. If it is at all possible, try to get a part-time or summer job in a manufacturing setting, even if you are not specifically in the quality control area. Although your work may mean doing menial tasks, it will give you firsthand experience in the environment and demonstrate the depth of your interest to future employers.

Employers

There are approximately 160,000 industrial production managers (a group that includes quality control engineers) and 69,000 industrial engineering technicians working in the United States. The majority of quality control engineers and technicians are employed in the manufacturing sector of the economy. Because engineers and technicians work in all areas of industry, their employers vary widely in size, product, location, and prestige.

Starting Out

Students enrolled in two-year technical schools may learn of openings for quality control technicians through their schools’ job placement services. Recruiters often visit these schools and interview graduating students for technical positions. Quality control engineers also may learn of job openings through their schools’ job placement services, recruiters, and job fairs. In many cases, employers prefer to hire engineers who have some work experience in their particular industry. For this reason, applicants who have had summer or part-time employment or participated in a work-study or internship program have greater job opportunities.

Students may also learn about openings through help wanted ads or by using the services of state and private employment services. They also may apply directly to companies that employ quality control engineers and technicians. Students can identify and research such companies by using job resource guides and other reference materials available at most public libraries.

Advancement

Quality control technicians usually begin their work under the direct and constant supervision of an experienced technician or engineer. As they gain experience or additional education, they are given assignments with greater responsibilities. They can also become quality control engineers with additional education. Promotion usually depends on additional training as well as job performance. Technicians who obtain additional training have greater chances for advancement opportunities.

Quality control engineers may have limited opportunities to advance within their companies. However, because quality control engineers work in all areas of industry, they have the opportunity to change jobs or companies to pursue more challenging or higher paying positions. Quality control engineers who work in companies with large staffs of quality personnel can become quality control directors or advance to operations management positions.

Earnings

Earnings vary according to the type of work, the industry, and the geographical location. Quality control engineers earn salaries comparable to other engineers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the median yearly income for industrial production managers was $73,000 in 2004. The lowest paid 10 percent earned less than $43,660, and the highest paid 10 percent made more than $123,010.

The average annual salary for industrial engineering technicians was $43,590 in 2004. Most beginning quality control technicians who are graduates of two-year technical programs earn salaries ranging from $17,000 to $21,000 a year. Experienced technicians with two-year degrees earn salaries that range from $21,000 to $50,000 a year; some senior technicians with special skills or experience may earn much more.

Most companies offer benefits that include paid vacations, paid holidays, and health insurance. Actual benefits depend on the company but may also include pension plans, profit sharing, 401(k) plans, and tuition assistance programs.

Work Environment

Quality control engineers and technicians work in a variety of settings, and their conditions of work vary accordingly. Most work in manufacturing plants, though the type of industry determines the actual environment. For example, quality control engineers in the metals industry usually work in foundries or iron and steel plants. Conditions there are hot, dirty, and noisy. Other factories, such as for the electronics or pharmaceutical industries, are generally quiet and clean. Most engineers and technicians have offices separate from the production floor, but they still need to spend a fair amount of time there. Engineers and technicians involved with testing and product analysis work in comfortable surroundings, such as a laboratory or workshop. Even in these settings, however, they may be exposed to unpleasant fumes and toxic chemicals. In general, quality control engineers and technicians work inside and are expected to do some light lifting and carrying (usually not more than 20 pounds). Because many manufacturing plants operate 24 hours a day, some quality control technicians may need to work second or third shifts.

As with most engineering and technical positions, the work can be both challenging and routine. Engineers and technicians can expect to find some tasks repetitious and tedious. In most cases, though, the work provides variety and satisfaction from using highly developed skills and technical expertise.

Outlook

The employment outlook for quality control engineers and technicians depends, to some degree, on general economic conditions. The U.S. Department of Labor projects slower than average growth for the field of industrial production management, which includes quality control engineers and technicians. This is a result of increased productivity as a result of better technology, in addition to a greater reliance on manufacturing workers to constantly monitor the quality of their own work. However, the roles of the quality control engineer and technicians are vital to production and cannot be eliminated. Thus, there will still be new jobs to replace people retiring from or otherwise leaving this field.

Many companies are making vigorous efforts to make their manufacturing processes more efficient, lower costs, and improve productivity and quality. Opportunities for quality control engineers and technicians should be good in the food and beverage industries, pharmaceutical firms, electronics companies, and chemical companies. Quality control engineers and technicians also may find employment in industries using robotics equipment or in the aerospace, biomedical, bioengineering, environmental controls, and transportation industries. Lowered rates of manufacturing in the automotive and defense industries will decrease the number of quality control personnel needed for these areas. Declines in employment in some industries may occur because of the increased use of automated equipment that tests and inspects parts during production operations.

For More Information

For information on certification and student chapters, contact

American Society for Quality

PO Box 3005

Milwaukee, WI 53201-3005

Tel: 800-248-1946

Email: [email protected]

http://www.asq.org

ASTM International offers seminars and other training programs for those involved in testing materials and quality assurance. Visit its Web site to read articles from its magazine Standardization News.

ASTM International

100 Barr Harbor Drive

PO Box C700

West Conshohocken, PA 19428-2959

Tel: 610-832-9585

http://www.astm.org

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