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Do you recall the story of Rip Van Winkle? In 1819, American author Washington Irving wrote a short story about a man who, while hunting in the Catskill Mountains, came across a group of men drinking moonshine and playing ninepin. Rip was invited to join them and after several drinks he fell asleep. When Rip woke up the men were gone, his rifle was rusted, and he had grown a long beard. Upon traveling back to his village, he eventually realizes he had been asleep for 20 years! Imagine his shock upon discovering his wife had died, his children had grown, and the British colonies were now an independent United States!

From 1996 through 2015, ASQ published results of seven futures studies they conducted roughly every three years in an effort to anticipate and predict the future of quality. Change and change management, especially advances in technology, was rapidly gaining momentum so long-term predictions were futile at best. However, ASQ’s senior leadership is to be applauded for repeating this exercise because these studies provide the quality practitioners a glimpse of the possible (probable?) future.

ASQ’s future studies were broad-based so they did not delve into the specifics of inspection technology. Over the years I had not given this topic much thought until I received a gut punch of reality in October 2015. That was the year of the first Quality Show at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center near Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The Quality Show is a trade show focused exclusively on quality technology, equipment and products. After attending this three-day event, I came away feeling very impressed and a bit ashamed.

Four things impressed me most:

  1. the sheer volume of exhibitors and attendees, it was far greater than I had expected;
  2. the level of technology now available to perform measurement and inspection, the advances in technology were mind blowing;
  3. the educational and networking opportunities, it offered far more than just exhibit booths; and
  4. the incredible hospitality! The conference floor was packed with attendees scurrying to visit the over 150 exhibitors featuring inspection related equipment and services. Exhibitors ranged from companies touting gage blocks to advanced vision measurement systems.

Soon after my arrival at the show I realized that my knowledge and understanding of the technology available to assist organizations with their inspection needs was severely lacking. I saw demonstrations of measurement equipment that merely required someone to set a part into the machine and then press a button. Upon leaving the show, I realized that I had just experienced a Rip Van Winkle moment.

I have always been impressed with the traditional layout inspector and truly believed that these people were masters of their craft. However, this skill set may now become a lost art. While the traditional layout inspector may be joining the likes of the milkman and haberdasher, one cannot argue that today’s technology is providing faster, more accurate information at a lower cost.

Regardless of how you feel about technology, we now have incredibly fast, simple to use, and extremely accurate measurement and test equipment. In so doing, human error has been greatly reduced, thus yielding more consistent results, or, in other words, better “quality.” Isn’t this what continuous improvement is all about?

Despite the possible demise of the traditional layout inspector, inspection itself will not be going away. One only needs to pass through airport security to understand the continuing need for inspection. What will be the role of inspectors of the future? No one knows for sure but I believe that this is something that Quality, ASQ, the ASQ Inspection Division and others should explore in order for them to better serve the quality community. If we don’t, then it is likely that one day we could end up like Rip Van Winkle.

Please make every effort you can to attend this year’s Quality Show, happening at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, IL, October 24-26! Stop by the ASQ Inspection Division and introduce yourself; I would love to meet you!