X-Rayted Files: Is Quality Really Priceless?

The short answer is no. Quality isn’t priceless. In the early 1970s, Ford needed a new car to compete with the imported sub-compacts. As the oil crises hit, Ford’s product line proudly offered “land yachts” like the Galaxie and the Fairlane (Figure 1). Compare that to the small and super economic cars offered by Honda and Toyota (Figure 2). Ford was in trouble, and they knew it. At that time, it took Ford 43 months to design and build a new car. The Pinto was designed and built in 25 months. Needless to say, they had to cut a few corners, and quality got a price tag.

As a result, Ford ended up selling cars they knew (from preliminary crash tests) carried a high risk of bursting into flame on impact and continued to do so for years. Twenty-seven people died in Pinto fires, and countless others suffered serious burns. But Ford had a sub-compact car in the market.

In the process of making anything from a car to a toaster, it comes a time where you ask yourself, “What will happen if this thing fails?” The answer is different if the toaster is to be sold at a local mart for $10 or to be installed in a Boeing 747. Similarly, the answer is different if you’re designing a car to grow market share or to barely survive a vicious competitive attack. As part of this process, at some point, you need to define the budget to make your product “good enough” for the application.

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Then, you get to estimate the cost of the proposed quality assurance equipment. In a day and age when we can learn virtually anything online, manufacturers still manage to be opaque about pricing, especially when it comes to specialty equipment. After all, “Quality is priceless,” they say, but it isn’t. When I hear that, I’m always left with the impression that a sleazy salesperson will try to clean up my pockets. To make inquiries with potential vendors can mean a flood of emails and phone calls that result in more questions than answers, and who wants that?

The most common question we get is, “What does an X-ray machine cost?” It’s true that the honest answer to this question is, “It depends.” And since we’re not trying to be coy, let’s take a look at why it depends, and the things it depends on. Among the drivers of cost, first and foremost are the system’s key components: X-ray tube, detector, cabinet, and software.

X-ray tubes vary in two key characteristics, resolution, and power. For non-destructive testing, systems typically feature X-ray tubes with focal spot sizes under from several millimeters to a few micrometers (or less for electronics). And, you guessed it, the smaller the focal spot, the higher the tube cost. The power of an X-ray tube, commonly in the range of 50kV to 450kV, is the other primary factor in determining its cost. (A pet peeve to note here: Power is the product of voltage and current, but in the X-ray world, voltage defines penetration of the photon; thus, it’s common but incorrect to refer to power in kV.) Most simply, the more power, the greater the system’s ability to penetrate the sample being inspected, and as power increases, so does cost. High power and small focal spot mean lots of money.

In addition to the X-ray tube, another critical component in determining a system’s performance is its imaging detector. Like X-ray tubes, there is a wide variety, and their cost is primarily influenced by their sensitivity, pixel size, and the number of pixels. Different materials respond better or worse to X-ray photons, thus impacting their ability to convert a few (or many) X-rays to visible light. Smaller pixels help resolve small features of your sample, and a big detector can fit more of your sample in the image.

But we’re not done yet. All of the components must be housed in a shielded and safe cabinet. Radiation leakage is no joke, and safety is always job number 1. Big samples need big cabinets since your sample needs to go inside the cabinet. Really big samples (airplane wings, for example) don’t need a cabinet, but that’s a topic for a future column.

How much an X-ray system costs is not simply a product of its components but also of its functionality. Software with sophisticated analysis tools can increase both capabilities and costs. Manually operated systems, as you might imagine, are among the least expensive machines available. If inspection relies on an experienced operator in a relatively low volume environment, a manual system might be just the ticket. But for high-volume production facilities demanding short cycle times, investing in an automated inspection system will likely pay dividends.

When you consider the real cost of training and retaining experienced operators, autonomous inspection enabled by artificial intelligence may be the best choice for the most demanding applications. Autonomous is not automated. In an autonomous X-ray machine, the system not only moves samples in and out of the cabinet automatically, but it also makes pass/fail decisions on its own.

Quality has a price, and it’s your job to define it. Ford made what some consider to be the right decision at the time, while some argue it forever tarnished their brand. One thing that’s certain is they taught us all an important lesson.

Dr. Bill Cardoso is CEO of Creative Electron.

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2020

X-Rayted Files: Is Quality Really Priceless?

08-19-2020

In a day and age when we can learn virtually anything online, manufacturers still manage to be opaque about pricing, especially when it comes to specialty equipment. Some may say, “Quality is priceless,” but Bill Cardoso explains how it isn't.

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X-Rayted Files: Marching Toward 2021, 20 Miles at a Time

07-29-2020

We’re only at the halfway mark, and 2020 has been a real challenge. Our best-laid plans have been cast in doubt by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this transformational time, Dr. Bill Cardoso looks back a century for a bit of inspiration from Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

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X-Rayted Files: E-Commerce Boom Fraught With Risk—X-Rays to the Rescue

06-17-2020

It’s not news that online sales are increasing dramatically during this global pandemic. However, with increased sales comes the increased risk of return fraud and abuse. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains how X-ray can help detect dummy and counterfeit merchandise.

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X-Rayted Files: Why Do We Break Stuff? Intelligence From Teardowns

05-20-2020

The impulse to break a new gadget to "see what's inside" and to “learn how it works” is often the first sign someone will become an engineer. We’ve learned a lot in over a decade of teardowns, which have helped us to understand how the SMT industry has changed over these years. Bill Cardoso investigates.

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X-Rayted Inspection: Manufacturing in the Eye of a Pandemic

04-08-2020

Dr. Bill Cardoso usually writes about X-ray inspection, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and how it all connects to Industry 4.0. This month, however, he shifts gears and shares some of the things Creative Electron has been doing during the COVID-19 outbreak.

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X-rayted Files: X-ray and AI—A Match Made In Heaven, Part 2

03-18-2020

In Part 1, Dr. Bill Cardoso covered the basics of the relationship between X-ray inspection and artificial intelligence (AI). In Part 2, Cardoso takes a step forward to cover some of the practical ways we use AI to improve the efficiency of our X-ray inspections.

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X-Rayted Files: X-Ray and AI—A Match Made In Heaven, Part 1

02-05-2020

Dr. Bill Cardoso has been working with AI for a while now and seen real application and success in X-ray inspection, as well as failures. In Part 1 of this column series, he shares how AI is changing the way we think about X-ray inspection.

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X-Rayted Files: When SMT Lines Develop Line Conscience

01-22-2020

Bill Cardoso explores the history of Henry Ford's assembly line, how this may be the end of the automation era, and the future of autonomous systems, AI, machine learning, etc.

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2019

X-Rayted Files: Will Radiation Damage My Electronic Component?

12-17-2019

Before I start talking about radiation damage on electronic components, let me warn you: if you are looking for a simple “yes” or “no” answer to the question, "Will radiation damage my electronic component?" stop reading now. Things will get complicated. You may feel like I did not answer the question at all, and you would be correct. There are whole conferences dedicated to this question (check IEEE’s Nuclear and Space Radiation Effects Conference), so the goal of this column is to give you some background to guide you to the right answer for your specific situation. Ultimately, the best way is to ask an expert.

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X-Rayted Files: The Currency of Technology

11-11-2019

In the ever-moving tide of technology, the need to innovate requires a constant shift in vision, and this need has never been more evident than in PCB manufacturing. In fact, innovation has become so valuable that PCBs are quickly becoming the currency of technology. Dr. Bill Cardoso explains.

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X-Rayted Files: The Risk of Installing Counterfeit Parts

10-02-2019

In high-tech manufacturing, the use of sub-standard components can be catastrophic. There is no greater need for quality control than in PCBs, as they are only as good as the components installed on them; therein lies the problem. Some components shipped to manufacturers are counterfeit!

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X-Rayted Files: Just Because You Can't See the Problem Doesn't Mean It's Not There!

08-20-2019

In this new column, Dr. Bill Cardoso will cover everything related to X-rays from cool historical facts to the latest in technological advancements, starting with the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

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