Quality Software & Analysis: Calibration Software Evolves to Total Lab Management

October 1, 2004
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Record keeping in cal labs has moved from binders and card decks to full-blown software suites.

As calibration customers and calibration labs seek greater efficiency and standards of quality, calibration software has evolved to help improve such operations as initial recall and final certification. Much like Microsoft Office, calibration software tools today are evolving into a calibration suite to handle as much of the process as possible.

In the early days, calibration records were limited to ring binders and card decks, which made traceablity and auditing a nightmare. The next advance was generic databases. Programs like Paradox, Excel and Access combinations were fairly common. Laboratories spent many hours programming and customizing software to fit their own requirements. Unfortunately, many of these internally written programs were cumbersome and not comprehensive.

Today, total lab management systems are emerging to handle many aspects of calibration and lab operations. Calibration software is generally categorized into one of three areas: benchtop or process software that automates the actual calibration procedure; lab management software for management, inventory, analysis and workload planning; and Web-access software that provides customers and staff with immediate access to status, reporting, recalls and instrument history.



Benchtop software

Benchtop or process software has made the greatest advances in the electronics segment. Technicians with workstations are connected directly to an instrument to run calibration tests, adjust instruments and record certification data, which is then stored in the master database. These calibration programs can run automatically, therefore increasing efficiency.

Physical and dimensional calibration is still primarily manual. Many older, stable calibration instruments working in the precision of single-digit millions are still mechanical, but calibration instruments from some companies are providing automated solutions.



Lab management

After the calibration has been performed, either automatically or manually, the measurement data is stored. This data can then be referenced to the additional data collected by the lab management software. After an instrument is in the system, the lab management software can issue recall reminders, track schedules, issue certifications and provide instrument history. In addition, the lab manager is able to analyze workflow and efficiency, as well as invoice customers.

Customizable interfaces are now available so that user interface labels can be changed to accommodate military, medical and other customers with different naming conventions for their instruments. Regardless of how a customer identifies an instrument, some lab-management packages can tailor labels without any programming. Other customizable program features include validations for business rules and special data needs associated with instruments or business processes. These features reduce the learning curve and support other external processes within the lab. The advantage of customizable programming is that the vendor uses one code base, thereby reducing the cost of support and future costs of upgrading custom programming.

One of the biggest customer concerns is data conversion, which is why a software vendor and the support it provides are almost as important as the software itself. Every lab has some form of database or record-keeping system. Some systems have been in use for years and selecting a vendor that can help convert existing data to a new system can be critical.

Mobile capabilities are important too. Not every service technician has Web access in the field. Calibration software is now able to download client files to a laptop, perform calibrations in the field and upload the revised records upon return.

Business management and forecasting is another emerging lab management software function. These lab-management programs enable managers to determine current and upcoming workloads, instrument status and analyze budgets. Some programs can handle invoicing and can transfer data to accounting programs. If a company is interested in connecting its lab-management system with its accounting software, the data should be stored in an ODBC (Open Database Connectivity) compliant fashion. This allows other applications, such as Quick Books and Peach Tree, to extract the data.

The scalability of lab-management software is important too. If a client-server application is selected, the software can work for one facility and provide the flexibility for expansion to multiple locations while using the same database. Some lab-management packages encompass two-way data warehousing and data management.

For larger corporate and governmental operations, enterprise or distributed data capabilities become necessary to share and manage the information throughout the organization. Enterprise level lab-management software should have the capability to work from a single centralized database, or support a distributed (local) database, and be periodically synchronized with the central warehouse.



Web access

Web access is one of the newest and most popular calibration capabilities. Web-access software gathers data from the database-such as the certificate, the frequency of calibration, and a current receiving, shipping and historical record-and presents the information to the customer on-line. Customers enjoy the 24-hour access to their instrument data. Calibration labs enjoy an increased level of customer service while reducing telephone support costs.

Calibration labs are continuing to search for ways to streamline their processes and data collection. Calibration software is evolving into a suite of programs to handle everything from actual measurement and data recording to online Web access. Q



Ten things to consider when purchasing calibration software.

1 Define the need. Start by drawing a workflow chart that includes each step of the operation. Determine where software can make a lab more efficient. Review findings and obtain suggestions and feedback from the staff.

2 Data conversion. How simple will it be to port or convert existing data into the new software? Is the software vendor prepared to help convert existing data, and at what cost?

3 Scalability. Can the software grow or expand as

the business grows?

4 Flexibility/customization. How much can the software be altered or customized to a lab's needs, or is a one-size-fits-all package being purchased? Can screen labels and report forms be revised to a lab's or customer's terminology and instrument naming conventions?

5 Enterprise capabilities. Is the software needed for only one facility? If planning to expand a lab, an enterprise application may be necessary. Will requirements call for a distributed or centralized database?

6 Network and hardware capabilities. Are the current hardware and networking/Internet capabilities adequate to support the new database?

7 Desktop or browser-based. Browser-based programs are lighter weight and easier to maintain. But bandwidth and Internet traffic slow down performance just like any Web program. Desktop systems require less of an investment in a central server, but result in better performance, mobility, reliability and availability.

8 Web access. Internet access to status, certificates and historical data is now available. How important is it to provide this service? Customers will most likely demand it.

9 Remote operation. Not all locations have Internet access. Remote operation enables data to be downloaded to a laptop. The data is accessed on the laptop while on-site, altered and then uploaded to the server when the field technician returns to the lab.

10 References. Get references from the software vendor's customers. Be sure to interview the customer's management, technical staff and actual users.



TECH tIPS

• Binders and card decks

made traceability and auditing

a nightmare.

• Today's software handles as many aspects of calibration and lab operation as possible.

• With Web-accessible software, customers enjoy access to their data at any time, day or night.

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