Five Sources of Process Variation in Manufacturing

by Beth Robinson; Updated September 26, 2017
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Manufacturing processes have many factors that influence their success, and in each, the possibility of variation is introduced. The specific types of variation depend on what is being manufactured -- for example, an adhesive is affected by factors unlike those that affect a computer. In general, however, the outcome-specific factors fit into five major areas.

Raw Materials

All manufacturing processes begin with raw materials, whether it's ore from the ground or the end result of previous manufacturing processes. If the raw materials change, that change can create variations in the overall process. There might be a difference in quality from the same supplier, which may fall within the specified limits but is still enough to cause variation in the next process, or material from a different supplier may not be identical to the one from the first supplier.

Equipment

Whether a manufacturing process uses simple or complex equipment, changes in the equipment can cause variation. Variations occur with the use of more than one piece of equipment to complete the same task because even two pieces of equipment bought at the same time from the same company will not always behave exactly the same over time. Variations are also introduced in the performance of an individual piece of equipment, which can begin to break down or drift from the calibration point.

Human Actions

Humans are by nature variable. Even with the best controls, an individual operator can have a bad day and introduce variations from one day to the next. Two different operators trained in the same way might have slightly different actions or criteria for decision making, which causes variation. Not all variation caused by human action can be considered human error, although that possibility also exists.

Environment

Changes in temperature and humidity affect various processes. Also, some manufacturing processes require a clean room environment, and the introduction of particles from outside the clean room can cause variation. Changes in the environment have the ability to trigger changes in raw materials, equipment and human action, even if the environmental changes do not directly affect the manufacturing process.

Method

A manufacturing process is defined by a series of steps. Variation can be introduced if the time between the execution of the steps changes, the order of the steps changes, one is missed or a change is made in carrying out the step -- for example, if the step says to heat to a certain temperature but a different one is selected. Some variations in method can be tracked to variations in human action, but others may be approved alternatives.

References

About the Author

Beth Robinson earned a Master of Business Administration from Arizona State University, a Master of Science in materials engineering from the University of Florida and a Bachelor of Arts in English from Virginia Tech. While a product-development chemist she wrote internal documents to help scientists, marketers and customers understand each other.

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