Skills You Need to Robot-Proof Your Career in Quality Assurance

Industry Advice Regulatory Affairs

If you work in quality assurance, you understand just how rapidly different emerging technologies are beginning to change the nature of your work. Blockchain, the internet of things, machine learning, and RFID tracking are just a few of the new, disruptive technologies that are almost certainly going to impact your career in one form or another—likely, in just a few years’ time.

The question is: What can you do today to proactively update your skill set in order to stay competitive? How can you make sure that your role in the quality assurance world is robot-proof?

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Technology That Will Change Quality Assurance

Regardless of the industry you work in, quality assurance is all about ensuring that the product your company produces and sells meets the quality standards required for distribution and for the market. These standards could be internal standards set by your organization, industry standards set by the broader industry, or safety standards set by local, state, national, and international regulators.

At its core, quality assurance is about preventing a bad product from being produced, and in the event that one is produced, keeping it from reaching the consumer such that it can do harm.

And while there will always be a role for human beings in the quality assurance process, new technologies are pushing the boundaries of what is possible without human intervention. Some of the most important that are likely to impact the field of quality assurance are:

Blockchain: A permanent, decentralized, and unchanging record, which can be leveraged for a variety of uses. For example, a blockchain ledger may be referenced in the event that bad or tainted product enters the supply chain, in order to more quickly and safely resolve the problem. It can also be leveraged to track product and paperwork from station to station throughout the supply chain. This has the potential to reshape record-keeping practices across industries.

The Internet of Things (IoT): This emergent trend consists of a wide variety of WiFi-enabled devices that can be leveraged throughout the manufacturing process. There is also real potential that the IoT, in the form of sensors, may prove particularly important during the distribution process, especially for goods like food and pharmaceuticals which are at risk of temperature and humidity fluctuations during transport.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning: Two technologies that may play a significant role in how data is collected, processed, and interpreted during the quality assurance process. These technologies already play an integral role in software and tech development and quality assurance, but have the potential to impact products from food to automobiles.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID): Allows for real-time tracking of product, inventory, and freight, which is of particular importance to organizations working with complicated global supply chains.

Responsibilities of Today’s Quality Assurance Professionals

The responsibilities of an organization’s quality assurance team typically include:

  • Drafting, interpreting, and implementing quality assurance standards and procedures for the organization
  • Evaluating new and existing regulations to ensure your quality assurance protocols fulfill requirements
  • Ensuring product quality through regular auditing and testing
  • Recording the results of your internal audits for reference, including statistical data about the quality of your product
  • Identifying areas along the supply chain or manufacturing process that can be addressed to improve product quality and safety
  • Developing training processes for each individual who handles or interacts with the product
  • Ensuring ongoing compliance and risk management across the organization

Traditionally, in order to fulfill these responsibilities, a quality assurance manager would need to be proficient in a number of skills including:

  • Leadership
  • Organizational and planning
  • Communication
  • Statistical analysis
  • Problem-solving
  • Industry-specific technical knowledge

As new technologies emerge, promising to take on an increasing number of monitoring and tracking responsibilities, QA workers will need to be able to demonstrate that they bring higher levels of value to the organization. One way to do this is by increasing your skill set to meet the new realities of the job, as influenced by these new technologies.

Emerging Skills for Quality Assurance Professionals

1. Ability to understand, interpret, and communicate with data

All of these technologies positioned to dramatically influence quality assurance have, at their root, one thing in common: data.

Blockchain is a large, decentralized ledger of data, the IoT collects real-time data throughout product manufacturing processes, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies collect and interpret massive amounts of information, and RFID-tracking is a means to obtaining data about where inventory is located along the supply chain.

Though data and statistics have always played a role in quality assurance, incorporating one or all of these technologies into your company’s quality assurance processes has the potential to dramatically increase the amount of data collected during the production and transportation of your product.

Therefore, quality assurance workers who demonstrate an ability to understand and interpret that data have an advantage over those who do not. Those who are able to take the data, boil it down, and use it to communicate with non-data-focused individuals have the greatest advantage of all.

2. Increased project management skills

Project management skills are particularly important in the early stages of implementing quality assurance processes and protocols. But project management also impacts QA when a company makes significant changes to their processes, such as incorporating new, complex technologies.

Implementing any of the technologies poised to impact the work done by quality assurance teams will be no easy feat for the average operation. Incorporating them in the supply chain will require a holistic understanding of both the QA process as well as a solid foundation in project management.

Taking the time now to build up those skills, whether by earning a certification or simply by doing more hands-on project management in your current role, will make it easier to demonstrate later that you’re the go-to person to lead the project.

3. Domain expertise

Professionals working in quality assurance need at least a rudimentary understanding of the technical processes of their organization, to help determine whether or not a product is up to standard. In the event products are substandard, this knowledge will also allow you to pinpoint where in the process the problem originated.

As more of the job becomes automated through the use of technology like RFID trackers and IoT sensors, the best way for quality assurance workers to increase their job security is by developing specific industry expertise.

By truly understanding each step along the supply chain/manufacturing process, members of the quality assurance team will be able to identify weaknesses, proactively resolve problems, and boost the bottom line for their organization in a way that even the most advanced technology can’t yet do. It allows you to demonstrate that the value you offer the organization is not in being able to perform a set list of tasks, but in the strategic insights that you bring to the discussion.

4. Human literacy

This may seem like an odd “skill” to include in the list, but it is one of the most important for any quality assurance professional.

Being effective in any quality assurance role requires an understanding of how the product impacts the human beings who use the product. It requires a sense of exactly what is at stake if bad product leaves a facility. It requires a level of compassion for the end users.

The ability to think like a human is critical to not only understand a problem, but to instill a sense of urgency to resolve said problem. It is also something that simply cannot be replicated by technology.

Machines, robots, and Big Data are tools. They will help quality assurance processes and workers become more effective and more efficient. But on their own, they are limited. It is the human being behind the tools asking the right questions, seeing the patterns, and making connections who is and will always be crucial to effective quality assurance.

According to Darin Detwiler, assistant dean and professor of Food Regulatory Policy at Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies, studies of past recalls and outbreaks have shown that, in many, if not most cases, the companies involved had all the information they needed to have prevented the event from taking place. What they lacked was human action.

“The ability to transform big data into actionable information requires human intellect: Understanding the likelihood and severity of risks and understanding the true impact on consumers,” he says.

Looking Toward the Future

Emerging technologies have tremendous potential to reshape the way quality assurance work is done. In order to stay competitive in the field, today’s quality assurance professionals need to focus on improving their current skills while also developing new competencies specific to the challenges ahead. Above all, in order to truly robot-proof their careers, quality assurance workers need to embrace the human element in order to do the things that technology cannot.

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