QUALITY SOFTWARE & ANALYSIS: Size Up Gage Calibration Software
Many questions need to be asked before purchasing and implementing gage management software.
Gage management and calibration software is a critical component of process improvement programs. Used effectively, it can keep the tools on the shop floor operating at optimal levels. There are many different packages available and all promise different results. To ensure quality performance, many questions need to be asked before purchasing and implementating the software.
As with any software purchase, start with an assessment of one's needs. Is only an inventory of gages needed? Are calibrations performed in-house? "If you perform your calibrations in-house you need to look at the procedures you use and then you are ready to determine if a particular company's gage management software fulfills your needs," says Robert Fruit, certified quality engineer and Six Sigma black belt at Mitutoyo America Corp., (Aurora, IL). "Notice that price is not a determining factor here. Gage management software that fulfills your needs will more than pay for itself because of how it improves your current procedures and keeps permanent records for you. A good gage management system will make it easy to find the complete history of a gage and its calibration records. When choosing between two good candidates, make sure you understand how to backup the computer records and choose the one that works best for you."
While most agree that a good gage management software package is tailored around a customer's needs, customers are often ignorant to what their own needs are. "It is surprising how many potential clients do not know specifically what they need in a solution as much as they just know they need software," says Devin Brent Ellis, client solutions director at CyberMetrics Corp. (Scottsdale, AZ).
Ellis suggests basic questions that should be asked before purchasing include, "What do you need the software to do for you, in addition to what customers or industry standards require you to have? Does it need to integrate with other systems or can it be standalone? Are there specific technology requirements from your IT group? While many competing packages have features in common, which ones meet your technology needs? If you need a Web-based, N-Tier solution that is ISO/QS compliant, you are going to find a much smaller group of product offerings available that meet that requirement."
When evaluating gage management software it is important to understand not only current requirements, but also future needs. For example, does a company require calibration schedules? Will repeatability and reproducibility (R&R) and e-mail capabilities be necessary in the future? Then assess whether a stand-alone software product will meet the needs or if a site license or other provision for multiple stations is needed.
"Determine which software programs fall within your company's budget limitations, if any, then proceed to match current and future needs with those programs that seem to best meet these needs," says Dr. Gordon Constable, gage calibration product development manager at PQ Systems Inc. (Miamisburg, OH).
Another step when examining software solutions is to look at features not actively considered. Will any of these features suggest ways to change what is currently being done or provide other new approaches to gage management and analysis?
Whatever the choice, gage management software should provide operators with flexibility. "Operators should be able to select or vary tool numbering systems, calibration frequencies and acceptable tolerances," says Hill Cox, Quality Magazine columnist and president of Frank J. Cox Sales Ltd. (Brampton, Ontario). "They should include known quality information for use in costing and management. The system should allow for work done in-house and work sent to an outside lab."
Complying With the Standards
Complying to standards such as ISO 9001: 2000, ISO/TS 16949, QS-9000, ISO 10012 and ISO/IEC 17025 is one of the main reasons companies implement a gage management solution. Software companies put significant effort into reading the standards, training their own personnel and hiring consultants to make sure they conform.
"Any software should meet the basic requirements in ISO 9001 and its companion document ISO 10012," says Gary P. Phillips, principal consultant at Gary Phillips Associates (Northville, MI). "Automotive standards ISO/TS 16949, and the expiring QS-9000 also require measurement systems analysis (MSA). Most packages will offer basic gage R&R and some will also do the less-frequently enforced MSA studies like linearity, bias, stability and attribute gage studies. Only a few packages include measurement uncertainty studies (uncertainty budgets). Uncertainty studies will be needed in some automotive situations, and by anyone conforming to the laboratory standard ISO/IEC 17025 or equivalent."
These industry standards are of great importance. Because so many customers require certification, it is essential that gage software solutions stay current with all standards that may apply. Developers rely on professional accrediting organizations to provide notice of impending change or upgrades in industry standards. "As software providers, we take compliance of the software we develop to such standards to be critically important," says Bob Herdoiza, CEO of Cebos (Brighton, MI). "It meets our customers' requirements, provides confidence in our customers in our software to meet their customer requirements and then ultimately provides credibility of our company to the marketplace."
A good gage software solution is going to come from a company with a track record of successful customers in multiple industries under the compliance umbrella. According to Charles R. Thompson, general manager of operations at IndySoft Corp. (Greenville, SC) many active purchasers incorrectly believe, or are misled to believe, that a software package makes them compliant.
"This isn't the case as software packages cannot deliver on the complete specifications in most standards-17025 is one great example," Thompson says. "So to ensure quality you really should know your spec and adopt the ‘show me' attitude when a software company states compliance adherence. Excellent software choices will be the ones that take the bulk of ensuring compliance off of the quality manager's plate. As for staying current, it's really a matter of knowing the spec as any quality manager should, and asking the right questions of vendors before a purchase and when specifications change."
Most mid- to high-end gage management software will provide continuous adherence to common industry standards as well as scalability, and reliable product support and services. High-end systems provide a much more robust feature set of functionality, ease of use and report capabilities. "From the high-end you get more bells and whistles, which may or may not be used and sometimes makes the software too ‘busy,'" says Bill Browning, president of Software Technology (Cookeville, TN). "The cost is significantly higher because of overhead and advertising expense. From the low-end you get software that meets the requirements of gage calibration/gage studies, less the additional bells and whistles but at a cost that is significantly less."
Many low-end packages are simply an inventory system with a log of calibration events and often little data integrity checking. However, there are some low-end packages out there that assist in compliance with current industry standards. But as Ellis points out, "They usually don't have the resources to keep up with new technologies or changing standards so they are not a good pick for companies looking at the long haul or who are considering a large deployment of a common solution."
Many low-end programs depend on other systems, such as Excel, to run their program. "There is nothing wrong with using systems like Excel, but you inherit that system's limitation," Mitutoyo's Fruit says. "For instance, Excel has many ways for users to interact with the gage values directly which can invalidate the accuracy of the records. There can also be backup issues when a low-end system creates multiple files for record storage. A high-end system typically uses a database backbone to save its records, which increases security because you must use the gage management program every time you want to work with the records. Backups may be a single file."
To increase the number of options available, it is not uncommon to find two separate gage management software systems side by side in the same organization. "One takes measurements from a dimensional calibrator and controls dimensional gages," says Richard Tatlow, managing director of Retriever Technology Ltd. (Tenbury Wells, UK). "The other is linked to electrical instrument calibrators and controls electrical instrumentation."
With so many options available, it is important to consider the "look and feel" element when evaluating gage management software. "Just as in the purchase of a car, one must consider more than whether a specific car can deliver its driver from point A to point B," Constable says. "Other factors include ease of operation, how well it fits one's needs, how accessible the dealer is and what services the dealer provides. The same kinds of both rational and intuitive responses to software purchases must be considered."
Generally, most competing packages share many of the same options, so it is important to look for companies that have been around a while. "Software providers with a long sales history are typically selling solutions not just software," Ellis says. "These solutions-minded companies are going to have more knowledge about your industry and are usually interested in your continued success with their product. Therefore, look for the company who asks a lot of questions about how you do business; they do this because they are interested in a good fit and a long-term relationship."
Herdoiza suggests looking for software companies that can guide a manufacturer through the implementation process, not just provide point-and-click training.
Stepping Up Quality
Over the years as quality requirements and product reliability issues increase, gage management software has stepped up with new options to ensure tighter inspection. "The addition of gage studies such as WIV (within-part variation), linearity, stability, bias and signal-detection method allow quality assurance personnel to better grasp the various errors that can impact true measurement value," Browning says.
Phillips says measurement systems analysis has become more sophisticated because of statistical techniques that would not have been feasible without software.
Gage management software can now assist in managing more stringent customer and regulatory requirements by integrating its functionality with other key related information. "An example of this is encompassing the product planning process and tying data from a control plan to inspection plans and then to the gage software," Herdoiza says. "This is accomplished by the gage software accepting data directly from gaging and other measurement devices. This removes much of the human error that can occur during this process. Also, many software providers have standard products with an easy-to-use interface as part of their suite, that will take the data and automatically transfer it based on operator-defined parameters."
A big quality benefit of gage management software is its notification functionality. Notifications can be sent proactively to appropriate plant personnel and not just when an operator logs into the system, but whenever a gage requires calibration. "Additionally, these notifications can be escalated to pre-determined managers for higher visibility," Herdoiza says. "Further, there can be alarms set that notify an operator if they are using a gage that is due for calibration."
Gage management software's improvements have not only focused on the measurements, but also in the operators and environment by incorporating reliability, uncertainty and bias studies. "Some even allow operators to calculate the calibration interval based on historic deviation," Thompson says. "Computers are essentially just data collectors and what data they are fed is generally considered an absolute after you hit enter. Software packages are now extending to consider the accuracy in factors related to that data collection process and eventually lead quality managers to good decisions on practices and procedures."
Other developments which are expected to enhance gage management software in the future include improved maintenance schedules for gages, and barcoding and scanning of gages. Web-enabled, highly distributable software solutions will become more common. Anticipate more integration with manufacturing equipment or smart hardware systems and facilities. Q
Quality Tech Tips
Gage management software is tailored around a customer's needs.
Consider the "look and feel" element when evaluating gage management software.
A good gage management system will make it easy to find the complete history of a gage and its calibration records.