Other Dimensions: Check the Fine Print

August 30, 2010
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Everyone knows the devil is in the details or fine print of any offer or statement, particularly when it comes to advertising. I recall some years ago when a car importer mounted an advertising campaign saying that 85% of all the cars they had sold in America were still on the road. This was a true statement of course, one that no North American carmaker could match. What they forgot to mention was that more than 85% of all the cars they had sold into this market had been sold within the previous couple of years so one would expect them to still be on the road.

Sadly, even though metrology is a means of precise communication, it too suffers from folks playing fast and loose with the language. An example landed on my desk recently in the form of a quotation for calibration services one of my competitors had issued. It wasn’t until I got to the last page with all their terms and conditions-the fine print-that I realized why I was uncomfortable with the first page.

The first page noted that the laboratory was ISO 9001: 2000 registered, but I knew they were also accredited to ISO 17025 even though that was not mentioned anywhere, not even in the fine print. Possibly they didn’t want to blow their horn too much in this area since they were primarily an electronics calibration facility. But they did mention accredited calibration in the fine print with three paragraphs worth of confounding verbiage.

First, they advised that it was the customer’s responsibility to advise if accredited calibration was required or face the threat of them using their “normal processes,” whatever they were. Next, they advised what the customer requiring accredited calibration has to specify. This included the method to be used for the calibration, the test points, required uncertainty in the form of a ratio instead of the more useful actual value-all the stuff that should be in their accredited procedure and scope for a given instrument or gage.

Being a simple kind of guy, I figure most folks send their toys to an outside lab for calibration because they expect an accredited lab to know all this stuff or they couldn’t be accredited. A visit to their Web site was no more enlightening. Their scope of calibration, compiled by them, showed a few dimensional tools and gage blocks they could calibrate and their “best measurement capability.” Their accreditation to ISO 17025 was not mentioned.

Now I was really confused-okay, more than normal-and decided I’d investigate further, so I looked up the scope their accrediting agency granted, which was quite a bit different than their Web site and didn’t even include gage blocks. The fuzzy language of their terms and conditions now made sense: it was designed to obscure rather than clarify.

I also noted that they had a statement regarding calibration intervals indicating that the customer must advise the frequency or they would use information from the maker of the item, and if that was not forthcoming, they would assign a one-year period. The first part of this statement complied with 17025 but the rest didn’t. And I couldn’t figure out why they felt it was their job to tell the only person who could rationally know what the period should be-the customer-what it should be when they had little or no knowledge of the operating situation.

I feel sorry for users of calibration services who are not all that familiar with some of the marketing ploys used in the business. So what’s a user of such services to do to ensure they will get what they need?

Don’t put much stock in Web sites as they don’t necessarily portray reality. When you receive a quotation for calibration, read the fine print-all of it.

Most important of all, get a copy of the laboratory’s scope-the one issued by their accrediting agency. Most labs will send you a copy or you can download it from the agency’s Web site.

Compare what the quotation says to what their scope of accreditation shows to be certain you’ll be getting the accredited calibration you need.

Remember: if the fine print leaves you confused, it’s unlikely anything else they provide will be any better. Get an outside opinion.

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