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Inspectors, testers, and graders ensure that your food won't make you sick, your car will run when you buy it, and your pants won't split the first time you wear them. These workers monitor quality standards for virtually all manufactured products, including foods, textiles, clothing, glassware, motor vehicles, electronic components, computers, and structural steel.
Inspectors visually check products and may also listen to, feel, smell, or even taste them. They verify dimensions, color, weight, texture, strength, or other physical characteristics of objects, and look for imperfections such as cuts, scratches, bubbles, missing pieces, misweaves, or crooked seams. Many inspectors use micrometers, electronic equipment, calipers, alignment gauges, and other instruments to check and compare the dimensions of parts against the parts' specifications. Those testing electrical devices may use voltmeters, ammeters, and oscilloscopes to test the insulation, current flow, and resistance. Machinery testers generally check that parts fit and move correctly and are properly lubricated, check the pressure of gases and the level of liquids, test the flow of electricity, and do a test run to check for proper operation. Some jobs involve only a quick visual inspection; others require a much longer detailed one. Senior inspectors may also set up tests and test equipment.
Inspectors, testers, and graders are involved at every stage of the production process. Some inspectors examine materials received from a supplier before sending them to the production line. Others inspect components, subassemblies, and assemblies or perform a final check on the finished product.
Inspectors mark, tag, or note problems. They may reject defective items outright, send them for rework, or, in the case of minor problems, fix them themselves. If the product checks out, they may screw on a nameplate, tag it, stamp a serial number, or certify it in some other way. Inspectors, testers, and graders record the results of their inspections, compute the percentage of defects and other statistical parameters, prepare inspection and test reports, notify supervisors of problems, and help analyze and correct problems in the production process. They also calibrate precision instruments used in inspection work.
The recent emphasis on quality control in manufacturing has meant that inspection is becoming more fully integrated into the production process. Many machines are now self-monitoring to ensure that the product is produced within quality standards. Inspectors still test products to ensure that they meet specifications, but, with the help of these machines, they direct the production line to adjust the machinery before the manufacturing line produces unusable parts. Also, many firms have automated inspection with the help of advanced vision systems, using machinery installed at one or several points in the production process. The inspectors in these firms generally are trained to operate this equipment.
Working conditions vary from industry to industry. Some inspectors examine similar products for an entire shift; others examine a variety of items. Most remain at one work station, but some travel from place to place to do inspections. Some are on their feet all day; others sit. In some industries, inspectors are exposed to the noise and grime of machinery; in others, they work in a clean, quiet environment. Some may have to lift heavy objects.
Some inspectors work evenings, nights, or weekends. In these cases, shift assignments generally are made on the basis of seniority. Overtime may be required to meet production goals.
Inspectors, testers, and graders held about 654,000 jobs in 1994. More than 3 out of 4 worked in manufacturing industries, including industrial machinery and equipment, motor vehicles and equipment, primary and fabricated metals industries, electronic components and accessories, textiles, apparel, and aircraft and parts. Others worked in temporary help services, communications and utilities, wholesale trade, engineering and management services, and government agencies. Although they are employed throughout the country, most jobs are in large metropolitan areas where many large factories are located.
A high school diploma is helpful and may be required for some jobs. Simple jobs are generally filled by beginners with a few days of training. More complex ones are filled by experienced assemblers, machine operators, or mechanics who already have a thorough knowledge of the products and production processes. Inspectors, testers, and graders also need mechanical aptitude, good hand-eye coordination, and good vision.
In-house training for new inspectors may cover the use of special meters, gauges, computers, or other instruments; quality control techniques; blueprint reading; and reporting requirements. There are some postsecondary training programs in testing, but many employers prefer to train inspectors themselves.
Advancement for these workers frequently takes the form of higher pay. However, they also may advance to inspector of more complex products, supervisor, or quality control technician.
Individuals wishing to become inspectors, testers, or graders may face competition. Although the occupation is large, giving rise to a large number of openings due to normal turnover, some jobs may be available only to those having experience with the production process. Also, like many other occupations concentrated in manufacturing, employment of these workers is projected to decline through the year 2005.
Even though the volume of manufactured goods will grow, employment of inspectors, testers, and graders will not grow for several reasons. Manufacturers are taking steps to improve production methods by using computers and statistical analysis to control the production process. In some cases, machines alert workers when items approach limits so that problems can be corrected before defects occur. This growing emphasis on quality will drive down the number of defective parts and help to reduce the demand for inspectors. In addition, assemblers, machine operators, and other production workers are becoming responsible for quality control in many firms, and they are correcting problems as they occur. As these responsibilities shift from inspectors to other workers, fewer inspectors, testers, and graders will be needed. Moreover, automated inspecting machinery is improving inspectors' speed and accuracy, resulting in higher productivity and adversely affecting employment of these workers.
In many industries, however, automation is not being aggressively pursued as an alternative to manual inspection. When key inspection elements are size oriented, such as length, width, or thickness, automation may play some role in the future. But when taste, smell, texture, appearance, or product performance are important, inspection will probably continue to be done by humans.
Inspectors, testers, and graders had median weekly earnings of about $430 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $310 and $590 a week. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $240 a week; the highest 10 percent earned more than $780. In addition to these earnings, most inspectors, testers, and graders receive benefits including health and life insurance, pension plans, paid vacations, and sick leave.
Other workers who inspect products or services are construction and building inspectors and inspectors and compliance officers, except construction, which includes consumer safety, environmental health, agricultural commodity, immigration, customs, postal, motor vehicle, safety, and other inspectors.
For general information about this occupation, contact:
The National Tooling and Machining Association, 9300 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington, MD 20744.
The American Society for Quality Control, 611 East Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53202-4606.
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