Quality Management and Assurance
How safe would you feel going to a hospital for surgery if there were no standards dictating the minimum education and expertise for surgeons and nurses? Would you fly confidently on a plane if there were no training or even flying experience requirements for pilots? Would you cross a bridge without worries if you knew that nobody had checked whether the steel used was strong enough for that particulardesign?
In fact, the introduction of regulations and definition of standards to ensure that we get a minimum level of confidence when using a product is nothing new. Already in the Middle Ages, guilds of craftsmen determined the minimum quality of products and also the training needed for membership.
The advent of mass production and the evermore complex, expensive and hazardous endeavours in which we embark, such as building aircraft, skyscrapers, nuclear power plants, open-heart surgery or going to space, makes it even more necessary to ensure quality workmanship, processes and materials at all levels of any successful organization.
Going to space is by its very nature complex, costly and involves thousands of highly skilled professionals working harmoniously. To avoid flaws and problems that could never be fixed once in orbit, it is critical to ensure that even the smallest part is manufactured properly to do its job—in space, you do not get a second chance. Actually, it is not that different to cooking a gourmet meal; you should better check that the recipe is followed properly and the ingredients are of good quality or the whole thing may be spoiled.
What is the Quality Management and Assurance domain?
Quality management and assurance is all about making sure that the team building a satellite or launcher does the work as it should be done, that the correct materials are being used and the right steps are followed. Workmanship and process standards need to be defined for all activities and products and, in addition, checks need to be performed to confirm that these standards are respected by the team. The same for materials; suitable materials have to be identified and checks need to be performed to confirm that these are indeed the materials used.
Quality management and assurance is also involved in handling the inevitable exceptions to the rules. What shall we do when the work cannot be performed following the intended method and so an alternative one has to be introduced? Or what shall we do if a material we wanted to use is not available anymore or does not work as expected and we need to choose a different one? Any problem or deviation needs to be thought through, otherwise the whole spacecraft may fail. This could mean a large financial loss or even danger to life.
Quality management and assurance has yet another aspect to it. It makes sure that evidence of the quality of the work done, the methods and the materials used is collected and available for inspection. This is very important to reassure decision makers, government officials and users in general that the satellite or rocket manufactured can be successfully launched and will bring the expected return on the investment made.
On one hand, quality management focuses on the general system and processes across projects. On the other, quality assurance focuses on the set of measures to gain confidence on the achievement of the quality of the product.
Why is Quality Managment and Assurance important?
Quality management and assurance is key to consistently produce space missions that are to the satisfaction of the stakeholders. Its importance increases as the complexity, cost and risk of space projects increase.
The effects of a problem in a satellite, launcher or ground support equipment can be devastating in terms of cost, time, public or private property and even human life. It is here where quality management and assurance contributes critically to the success of the mission.
In the end, a chain always breaks at its weakest link; a single nut or bolt, a manufacturing step forgotten, a material of inferior strength can render a satellite useless in orbit or cause a catastrophic explosion of a launcher. Quality management and assurance is there to ensure that each key method, process, part and material is adequate. Quality management and assurance is there to ensure that changes along the way do not compromise the results. Quality management and assurance is there to provide evidence that things have actually been performed with the desired quality.