Other Dimensions: Overdosing on Traceability

December 1, 2003
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Calibration reports only need to deliver basic information.

I've never inhaled or injected any illegal drugs, so I have to rely on what the experts say such chemicals do to people. A list of expected side effects includes feelings of euphoria and distortions of the physical.

While having never used illegal drugs, I have to admit to inhaling much oxygen to avoid drowning in a sea of quality surveys and requests for all kinds of extra information on calibration reports. One day I realized that all the additional paperwork was creating the same sense of euphoria in manufacturers, by injecting quality systems with information, as was the euphoria created by smoking or injecting some illegal substance. While some of the information is necessary, in many instances the requests for all the extra information amounts to an "overdose." In cases of supplying such extra, unnecessary information, have I become akin to a drug dealer?

One of the drugs supplied to addicted systems is "traceability." NIST calibration report numbers deliver the desired fix. Unfortunately, these numbers may not mean much if they have been transferred through many hands before they end up in a final report. Like drugs, their potency is reduced through multiple handlings.

A reduction in potency may not mean much if your gage blocks are being used to calibrate a dial caliper, but those unknown numbers can deliver a bad reaction if used for gage block or fixed-limit gage calibration. All that a valid NIST number ensures is that someone got something calibrated by NIST. That "something" may not indicate what you think it does. One needs to see the actual NIST report to fully know the scope of what is being reported, but that may not be an easy matter if the calibration report does not come directly from NIST but rather is routed through intermediaries.

There may not be need for concern about the calibration report and traceability if equipment is calibrated by an ISO 17025-accredited laboratory. In fact, the standard does not require that traceability be shown on calibration reports issued by nationally accredited laboratories because they can't be accredited without having appropriate traceability in place. The purity of that traceability can be verified only by seeing the source document, and the spin offs from it, in a final report.

Another drug injected into quality systems is a request that calibration reports from outside laboratories list the instruments and masters used in the calibration report, when they were last calibrated and when they are scheduled for their next calibration. As far as I know, the desire for this information comes from a misunderstanding of ISO 10012, which relates to internal calibration records and not reports from outside laboratories. But manufacturers in need of an information fix demand that ISO 17025-accredited laboratories provide this sort of data on their calibration reports even though ISO 17025 does not require it. There is a good reason why the standard doesn't require such information.

Like a placebo, having this information does nothing for the quality system. It is unlikely that any laboratory will report that its equipment is out of calibration. More importantly, the recalibration information is of little use to anyone unfamiliar with the actual operations of the issuing laboratory. Because most manufacturers using outside laboratories don't do on-site assessments, there is no way for them to determine if the recalibration information is appropriate. However, a competent accrediting agency assessor will ensure recalibration is done at intervals appropriate to the work being done by the laboratory. The assessor has the advantage of being onsite, and he has the knowledge of how those in the calibration services industry should be satisfying recalibration requirements.

If a checkup of your quality system reveals an overdose of information that is of little use on its own, it's time to put that system in rehab.

Maybe the government should abandon the war on drugs in favor of a war on information overdoses. They do more harm than good, just like their pharmaceutical counterparts.

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