What Is First Article Inspection? How The Process Occurs

What is a first article inspection? First article inspections are generally associated with consumer electronics, medical devices, automotive, defense, and aerospace industries. 

These industries require products that meet strict precision standards and dimensional accuracy, which you can only verify via first-article inspection. 

So, what is it? Read on to learn more!

What Is First Article Inspection?

A first article inspection is the formal inspection of one or a few products made during mass production. Usually, it happens during the first mass production run, but the product doesn’t have to be the first off the line.

The process involves checking if the first article sample meets your product specifications and functionality.

These features and characteristics should match the correct specifications from the pre-production sample.

So for the product to pass this inspection, it must match this golden sample down to the color.

This rigorous inspection assures the customer that the manufacturing process is set right.

If there are issues, contract manufacturers can use the inspection report for last-minute error correction to improve the mass production process. Failure to which the production process can result in massive wastage and losses.

Depending on the process, this first article inspection can be separate or included in the inspection test report.

First Article Inspection Process

First-article refers to the product to test in the inspection process. So for the process to be valid, this product must meet these requirements.

  • Undergo manufacturing using the same materials and processes as other products in the mass production process
  • Emerge from the same factory with the same staff that will mass produce the other similar products
  • Be made using the same tools and equipment as the other products
Optical quality control of an electronic product

Optical quality control of an electronic product

Therefore, the inspection plan must include the following steps to be effective.

  • Define the inspection scope: List what to include during the inspection (materials, processes, components, etc.).
  • Create a checklist: List everything you plan on checking. Request assistance from the quality management team or suppliers to avoid missing anything.
  • Inspect the raw materials: Check the raw materials used in manufacturing to determine their quality.
  • Inspect the equipment: Check all the equipment used during manufacturing.
  • Inspect the assembly process: If there is assembly after manufacturing, check if the process puts all parts together accurately.
  • Inspect the final product: The most vital part of the first article inspection. Check the product for defects and ensure it meets all specifications.
  • Document the results: Create the first article inspection report paperwork to include all positive and negative findings. This report should inform improvements in the manufacturing process, raw materials, equipment, assembly process, or raw materials.
An inspector checking products against a checklist on a tablet

An inspector checking products against a checklist on a tablet

When To Conduct a First Article Inspection

If dealing with a product that has gone into production, this inspection process should come during the pilot run after completing the pre-production work.

But if you are already in the mass production phase, the first-article inspection comes in after the initial product exits the production line.

So inform your manufacturer before the inspection that an inspector will be visiting to prepare for the checks.

Factory workers on a production line

Factory workers on a production line

But you can also request the first article inspection if the product is not new. The checks are necessary if these conditions occur.

  • A production run lapses for two years or more, and you want to restart manufacturing
  • There are engineering changes that affect production.
  • Part design, raw material, equipment, process, or manufacturing location changes exist.
  • The parts supplier changes.
  • Existing supplier or manufacturer delivers substandard products (needs scrutiny in the short term).

In most cases, you’ll need a partial FAI if there are component or product design changes. This report highlights the differences between the newest product version and the initial FAI.

But if satisfied with the processes or components of the current supplier, there’s no need to order this inspection.

What If a Product Fails First-Article Inspection

If the first article inspector notices design defects, functionality issues, color disparities, and the like, the production process should stop. The inspection report will advise on the best corrective measures to rectify the problem.

The typical causes for inspection failure include the following.

  • Poor or inconsistent quality of the raw materials or components
  • Unauthorized or incorrect component/material use
  • Incorrect equipment setup
  • Manufacturers using the wrong equipment or processes
  • Erroneous input positioning

Once fixed, the inspector must recheck the production process by commissioning a small initial production batch or pilot run.

A PCB mass production line

A PCB mass production line

How To Find a Reputable First Article Inspection Company

The first-article inspection and improvement recommendations are only as good as the inspector or inspection company. So consider these factors before requesting inspection services.

Pick a Company with the Relevant Experience

Experience matters in this business. For instance, if you want an inspector to check your electronics’ circuit boards, you need someone with the know-how to inspect their specifications.

Technical knowledge is vital for this task, but experience is more critical. It is like comparing theory and practice.

One way to determine this factor is by checking online reviews and ratings about the company’s services or asking for referrals. This data will inform you of the company’s reputation. Since experience and reputation go hand-in-hand, you’ll be able to make a decision.

Ensure the Inspectors Have Certifications

Certifications indicate whether the company and employees have the required qualifications and skill sets to conduct the inspections as per industry standards.

A PCB inspector on a test bench

A PCB inspector on a test bench

Check the Inspection Cost

Inspection costs are part of the production costs. So we recommend getting quotes from several companies for comparison. Pick the offer that gives the best value for money. And check for hidden fees.

Go Through the Terms and Conditions

While comparing the quotes, check the fine print to see if the terms and conditions align with your needs. And when you hire the provider, get all the contract details in writing to avoid misunderstandings later on.

Conclusion

As you can see, the first-article inspection process is critical for industries that need precise parts. 

And since it involves testing products in the mass production lines, it highlights issues you might not have noticed in the approval samples. 

That’s it for this article. Contact us if you want to know more about this process and how to schedule it in our PCB production facilities.