Quality Software & Analysis: Calibration Made Simple

March 1, 2007
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The Quality Calibration Services gage lab uses in-house calibration software. Source: Quality Calibration Services Inc.


Regular calibrations are a necessity in today’s manufacturing environments. Without it, operators have no guarantee that any of their measurements are correct. Improper measurements can drive a company out of business, which may be one of the reasons calibration software was the number one planned software purchase on Quality’s 7th Annual Capital Spending Survey. Companies would be wise to use calibration software and eventually use a system that integrates with other software systems. Not only can it help the business, it can help employees perform this crucial task.

In some cases, the right software can be a differentiating business factor. In the case of Quality Calibration Services Inc. (QCS, West Allis, WI), its in-house calibration software gives the company a business advantage, says Bill Hangartner, president/owner of Quality Calibration Services Inc. “It puts us at a different level,” he says. The company’s copyrighted software, developed four years ago, works in real time and gives customers the option to view or purchase gages, and change a calibration date or frequency. It also has different levels of hierarchy so managers can assign access rights and levels of security. “The software helps take some of the burden from the quality engineer to help monitor his costs,” notes Hangartner, who says quality personnel want the software to make their lives easier. Instead of simply managing gages, it should give them more time to work on preventative issues.

Therefore, the software is continually developed into a more elaborate and user-friendly system. “Everyone has their own little idiosyncrasies on how their shop is being run,” Hangartner says, which leads to customization requests. Though his IT staff is an added expense, this allows the company to customize the software, which helps both QCS and its clients.

For example, calibration software can determine the correct amount of time between calibrations. Operators may wind up calibrating the gages again before they have been used. “How do you know that a year’s life may be too long, or short? Statistically enhanced software has obviously helped increase gage life, tool life, the whole nine yards,” Hangartner says, and it can answer some important questions: “What is the cost of quality? What does it cost me to produce that part?”



Calibration software can be a differentiating factor in today’s manufacturing environment. Source: Quality Calibration Services Inc.

The software can help customers automate their calibration process, as well as plot trends, predict gage life and become more cost-efficient. It allows QCS to suggest extended calibration periods, which helps its customers save money. In turn, this leads to return customers and a good reputation. “Calibration is an industry unto its own,” Hangartner says. “You’ve got to be able to grow with that, and offer customers more service. They send gages to us that will be calibrated and measured correctly. They have confidence in us, and we provide them as much support as we possibly can.”

While small shops will obviously have a different number of gages, and thus different needs than large corporations, accuracy is important to everyone. Every shop wants to minimize variability and uncertainty levels, and if something goes wrong, they need to trace it back to the source.

Software developers strive to make operators more efficient by ensuring that they use the correct standard and instrument. It tends to minimize human error as automation enhances repeatability and reproducibility. For example, if the operator tries to use a gage that is out of calibration, the computer locks. The quality manager’s job becomes that much simpler. “A good quality product stems from a good calibrated gage, verified by a good calibration lab,” Hangartner says. Software can help make this happen.



The GagePack software can generate information such as the number of gage calibrations performed during the past 12 months. Source: PQ Systems

Features

The goal should be to have a foolproof system in which operators cannot use the instrument unless it is calibrated. Then the data collecting from the device should all be done electronically, says Labtronics (Guelph, Ontario) President Robert Pavlis, who has worked with calibration software for 16 years. “If you don’t have a good instrument calibration process in place, then none of the data you have means anything,” Pavlis says.

When operators calibrate instruments, and then manually enter the data, it leaves room for transcription errors. “Any system allowing manual calibration is better than nothing, but you really don’t know that those are the real numbers,” Pavlis says. In the Labtronics system, operators can create an automated system to do the calibration. A multi-step process walks operators through the steps and collects data electronically along the way.

Calibration software should have an inventory of devices in the shop. “If you have 20 calipers running around, it should know which is which,” Pavlis says. Each device should have its own calibration schedule, and the system should be flexible enough to allow operators to calibrate a large number of devices. This may pose a challenge with simpler systems with standard fields because some devices require more complicated calibrations. The system should customize calibration screens for each product, which is more common in higher-end systems. It also should offer some way of automatically checking pass/fail results, and notifying management if it fails.

Security is another key area. Typically, companies have certain people do calibrations. Higher-end systems will check if the person doing the calibration has been trained for that device, and if their training is up-to-date.

Wear trend analysis, or predicting when the gage might fail calibration ahead of time, is another key feature, as is checking calibration on gages that are not being used. The software should have gage management capabilities, displaying how many gages in a particular type failed calibration or passed, allowing operators to adjust time periods between calibrations, says Dr. Gordon Constable of PQ Systems (Miamisburg, OH), who has been involved with calibration software for more than 20 years; back then, it was basically an inventory system that kept track of gages.

Eventually, this early system changed as many people found they had an inventory of gages, but could not find them, which lead to a check-in and check-out feature. Then, as customers became more concerned about control charts, they wanted to check that the gage was accurate, and schedule and report calibrations. The software could record those calibrations, and develop a process of dealing with internal and external calibrations.

Calibration software has become more common now, as homegrown solutions are not up to the task. Capabilities such as linearity, uncertainty, repeatability and reproducibility are needed in many operations.

A basic system should tell operators when things are due, record and report those results, and update it for the next time. The software should manage gages beyond merely doing calibrations, and minimize the number of gages used. Customers also demand ease of use. “The more automated and easier it is to enter data, the better they like it,” Constable says. When operators work with many gages, they appreciate anything that can simplify the process.

The GagePack software from PQ Systems offers a catalogue view that allows operators to see an image of the gage, which helps them retrieve it, which is particularly important if they have never seen the gage before. Constable says one customer wanted two pictures: one of the gage and one of its location. The calendar feature helps the operator make better use of the gage by displaying its schedule on a daily, weekly or monthly basis.

Because it has all these features, calibration software cannot be taken lightly. “It provides an extremely strong statistical history for implementing cost savings. It just enhances the whole process, both from a calibration standpoint and manufacturing standpoint,” Hangartner says.



Regulations

While calibration software can help improve a business, many companies do not have a choice. More and more regulatory bodies insist that companies calibrate on a regular basis and provide documentation.

With the rise of ISO certifications and FDA regulations, companies realize they have to document what they are doing; software is the best means to do this. It is not good enough to say that employees were trained-companies must verify when the training was done and what jobs the person was trained for. Trying to do all this by paper can be a nightmare. As the number of devices in the company grows, it is not feasible to do it manually.

Software systems can provide that history. Companies can see when they last did the calibration and what instrument was used. While the consequences of incorrect calibration can be significant, the price of the software usually is not. Pavlis says most calibration software is inexpensive because the company does not have to buy software for everyone, only for those that do calibrations. At the same time, companies save time by eliminating paperwork. Also, the systems are proactive, e-mailing people calibration notices instead of waiting for them to look it up.



Changes

The goal of the software should be to merge calibration and training records into one automated system. Although this is not yet a trend, more companies have come to realize that calibration software is not a standalone product in the long-term. It should eventually integrate into the manufacturing system. “I think it will be a slow process,” Pavlis says. “It’s relatively simple to make a calibration software package with a focused goal in mind. But trying to integrate into a whole host of other systems makes this process so much more complicated. People don’t have experience with integration.

“We’ve been seeing the need for integration for the last 20 years and it’s still got a long way to go,” Pavlis says. It will not become a priority until customers demand it, and that will not happen until they see one or two people doing it. After they realize it is possible, then demand will increase, and it will start snowballing into an absolute requirement, he adds.

Leaping from a paper-based system to a fully automated system is difficult; thus, companies usually go through stages of growth before implementing an integrated system. Whatever type of system is used should make calibration easier and, thus, allow quality professionals to spend time on other important areas of the business. Q



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