Limit Samples, AQL Tables, and Manufacturing Variance, oh my!

These are some of my very favorite topics, but not everyone is keen to wrap their head around what they are and their importance in

mass production. My goal, today, is to share with you this epiphany.

Mass production is obvious, right? You decide what you’re making and then the factory perfectly replicates it on an assembly production line. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to get 30,000 or more of your groovy, unique item created fairly quickly for all your fans. Except for one thing – it’s a bit more complicated than it sounds.
What Is Mass Production?

Let’s start with a clearer understanding of mass production. You are correct that at its core, mass production is the uniform manufacture of large quantities of a product using assembly lines or perhaps, automated technology. More formally, it’s an efficient production methodology designed to achieve high volume with detailed organization of material flow, careful control of quality standards, use and control of safe materials and division of labor. The key here is the reference to quality standards. Despite all the standardized processes put in place during mass production, the end products Can. Have. Variation. (Yep, I added that fancy punctuation on purpose.)

Variation, my friends, is the crux of today’s blog. How to control deviation in manufacturing to consistently achieve (nearly) identical products that match your original vision. Product defects (or shall we say, “imperfections”), large or small, are an inevitable consequence of mass manufacturing. No factory is perfect, no manufacturing condition is perfect, and in the world of hand painting and hand assembly, no human is perfect. The challenge is being able to foresee potential issues to prevent them and to monitor production to catch issues in progress so you can course correct on the spot.

Quality Assurance
Quality is a very over-used word, so it’s easily glossed over as a basic requirement for all businesses. Yeah, yeah, we all know quality is important. But, it’s MISSION CRITICAL (there goes my crazy punctuation again) in manufacturing. Quality Assurance plans ensure that the quality standards pre-set for your product are met throughout the entire production process. As you might imagine, it’s far more effective to plan for quality in advance than simply try to inspect for quality later.

The Golden Sample is the Benchmark

Therefore, it makes sense to start with an example of your product that is considered the “golden sample” – one that has been approved for factory replication on all specifications – size, materials, deco, functionality, weight, etc. This physical piece will be referenced throughout all stages of production as the “ideal unit” to duplicate on a large scale. Having a perfect point of reference helps confirm the factory is aligned with your definition of quality (there’s that word, again), up front.

For sake of discussion, let’s say we’re about to make a statue of Guan Yu for the Total War: Three Kingdoms Collector’s Edition Franchise (actually, we just finished this awesome project for Sega!). We begin with a client-approved version of the statue that is pre-made from a “sculpted” 3D file and hand-painted. Like this (feel free to zoom in for more detail – it’s pretty amazing, if I do say so myself!):

What could go wrong?

You’ve given the factory your Golden Sample, so now all they need to do is make it!

Well, yes, but…

I’m guessing that many of your peers bestowed a lot of love and attention to creating and then approving all the fine details of your golden piece of perfection. However, when factory production ramps up on a large scale and 400 painters are ready to make a bit of magic, some of these details can g