What is a First Article?
There are two types of “first articles.”
1. When a product of any kind is in the development stages – regardless of whether it is being designed for civilian or government (military or aerospace) use – it goes through several design iterations. When the design has been finalized and specifications for its manufacture finalized, the product must be manufactured for the first time using component parts designed for the purpose. The very first part (or assemblage of parts) to be manufactured is a “first article” (Wikipedia source)
2. When a company has an item that it needs manufactured, it requests bids from subcontractors who specialize in the type of manufacturing needed. Subcontractors will submit bids in which they demonstrate their ability to manufacture the item and give their pricing structure. The first item to be manufactured by any selected contractor will be a “first article.”
What is a First Article Inspection?
When a company subcontracts its manufacturing process, the subcontractor is supplied with the specific drawings and specifications which the manufactured parts must meet.
To ensure that the first article – the very first item to be completed – meets these specifications, it is subjected to an extremely thorough and rigorous inspection. Every single dimension and specification of this first article is checked against the drawings to ensure that the part has been manufactured exactly as required.
Why perform a First Article Inspection?
Every manufacturer is subjected to quality control. Quality control inspections take place throughout the manufacturing cycle of an item. Inspections take place on a regular basis. Parts are selected on a random basis and each subjected to inspection of critical dimensions. The parts are given pass/fail indications in the inspection report.
The first article inspection establishes the baseline for all subsequent random testing, because it checks every dimension and specification against the drawings, and the actual dimensions of each measurement are recorded, not just “pass/fail” checks.
Because of the thoroughness of the FAI, subsequent random inspections of manufactured parts can be relied upon to successfully gauge the quality of the parts being manufactured.
A first article inspection therefore will identify manufacturing process flaws, ensure that manufacturers are able to produce items that are compliant with specifications, improve quality of manufactured items, and reduce manufacturing delays and the overall cost of the item.
Who Performs First Article Inspections?
Depending on whether the manufacturer is producing product for civilian or government use, First Article Inspections are performed either by representatives of the appropriate government department, or by independent testing facilities.
All testing facilities are themselves tested, or accredited, on a regular basis to ensure that they and their equipment meet the standards needed to successfully perform inspections on their clients.
In the United States, the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) provides accreditation to both civilian and military testing labs.