Other Dimensions: Do In-House Labs Need Accreditation?

March 1, 2005
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My recent columns on in-house gage and instrument calibration briefly commented on accreditation of such facilities. Questions and comments from readers and customers alike have prompted me to devote a column to this subject.

The answer to the question may be a no-brainer for some because the standard they are working to demands it, their customer requires it or regulatory agencies are calling the shots. However, for those of you not so restricted and considering getting your in-house lab accredited, I offer the following thoughts.

If your company wanted a loan from the bank, it would present financial data that has been independently audited to confirm that the numbers are real. I know it doesn't always work that way, but we have to start somewhere. Similarly, your quality system registrar will want assurances that your calibration system is delivering real numbers. Customers may be more inclined to accept in-house calibration or inspection results if you have accreditation. Corporate legal counsel may prefer that you be accredited in case they have to prove you know what you are doing in a court case. Some insurance underwriters are considering accreditation to reduce claims under a product liability clause. Many people prefer that you operate an accredited in-house calibration facility.

The operating advantages to accreditation include the comfort and satisfaction of knowing your practices and performance are up to a reasonable standard. In addition, if there are measuring disputes with your product, the calibration of the instruments or gages that passed accreditation won't be challenged as much. The suppliers of some of those gages and instruments also won't be so swift in dismissing rejects as bad measurements on your part. This is especially true if the supplier does not have an accredited laboratory, which often is the case.

Another benefit of accreditation by well-known and respected agencies is their training seminars. Anyone can attend, of course, but if you don't keep tabs on their Web site, you may miss the occasion when one takes place where you live.

Yes, you can obtain many of these operating advantages without independent accreditation by following one of a number of generic quality standards. However, few are as stringent as ISO 17025 or ANSI Z-540 when it comes to calibration and testing laboratories. And the assessors working with these standards tend to be technical specialists rather than systems people, so they can provide sound advice.

Naturally, costs must be considered, but if you already have your own calibration facility, the major initial investment is in the hardware; labor will be the ongoing primary cost element. By comparison, the costs of accreditation are small.

Another way to look at the money is to evaluate the costs of backup equipment no longer required because you brought calibration in-house. Similarly, the costs of measurement squabbles and rejected parts can be reduced. Insurance premiums may decrease as well.

Accreditation costs can be kept to a manageable level by starting small and expanding later when you are more comfortable with the process and your accrediting agency is more comfortable with you. Save the e-mails: I know there are accrediting agencies that are comfortable with anyone who will pay their fee.

Because you are calibrating to suit your personal needs, you have the option of becoming accredited for the calibration of a limited number of instruments or gages. This reduces on-site assessment time and expense, and if procedures or uncertainty budgets need reworking, there are only a few to deal with. You can expand the types of items you are accredited for at any time, but this will trigger an on-site assessment that adds to your costs. A better way is to add items each time there is a renewal assessment, so costs are amortized over a range of items.

You don't have to be accredited for every type of instrument or gage calibrated in your laboratory. But remember, your accreditation only will apply to those items on your scope of calibration and none of the rest.

What's my answer to the question? No, in-house labs don't always need to be accredited but if they want their work taken seriously, they should be. Would you invest in a company whose financial figures were not audited by a recognized, outside party?

Hill Cox is president of Frank J. Cox Sales Ltd. (Brampton, Ontario, Canada.) He may be reached at askquality@bnpmedia.com.

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