Quality Magazine

Calibration Made Easier

March 1, 2004
Suppliers are using the Internet to reduce the paperwork and the costs of calibration.

Regularly scheduled calibration of gages is key to accurate data. An online calibration service can help companies track calibration dates. Photo: Richard J. Bagan Inc.


Some companies must track the calibration of thousands of gages each year, which generates mountains of paperwork. An online calibration service promises to be paperless. Photo: The L.S. Starrett Co.

The papers can cram a filing cabinet, bulge a storage box, or fill up a hard drive, and still they keep coming. The records are those slips of papers or kilobyte-eating calibration files that grow by leaps and bounds as each gage goes through its calibration cycle.

"A company can have 10,000 gages on a yearly cycle and that equates to 10,000 certificates, says Chuck Shaw, general manager of Starrett Calibration Services (SCS, Duncan, SC). "Considering they usually have to keep their paperwork for seven to 10 years, well, you do the math."

Calibration service providers are looking to help ease this paperwork burden and often are turning to the Internet as a simple, cost savings and paperless solution.

Starrett Calibration Services is on the verge of launching its Web site (www.starrett.com) and so is Quality Calibration Services Inc. (West Allis, WI, www.qualitycalibration.com). Like SCS, the National Institute of Standards and Technology is looking to launch a Web site (NIST, www.nist.gov) in the spring. Sites that are currently operational include Agilent Technologies (Palo Alta, CA, www.agilent.com/find/infoline) and Richard J. Bagan Inc. (Columbia City, IN, www.rjbagan.com).



Going digital

Richard J. Bagan Inc. is an ISO 9001 and A2LA calibration lab that launched its Web efforts in the form of a product called Web Track. While other organizations have used the Internet for standard-related activities, especially the ISO series, Richard J. Bagan Inc. was one of the first to use it for calibration activities.

In the 1990s, the company was audited by a customer, a steel company, which was undergoing a cost-savings program. "I didn't know what they were looking for," says Dick Bagan, president and CEO. "I went to a purchasing manager's convention and heard Bethlehem Steel talk about how they developed a cost-savings program that saved them money from reducing search time, among other savings. One plant saved more than $10 million."

One of the cost-savings ideas led to the company opening up their computer systems to its customers. "It changed our thinking forever," Bagan says. "We realized that we had to allow customers to come into our computer."

Driving their thinking, Bagan says, was a need to be a leveraged resource for their customers to help them achieve cost savings. "In today's world market, manufacturers have to reduce costs to stay in the game, and we try to fill that need," he says.

The company built a software package, now dubbed Web Track, which is a task management system. Computers can check backlogs, manage task lists and set priorities. It is all Web based and users with a browser and a pin number can see all of its calibration activities, even among multiple plants, to know what is being calibrated and what needs to be calibrated, as well as to store gage histories and certificates.

"A quality manager of a multi-plant company can see all the resources of each plant," Bagan says. "Not just to keep calibration running smoothly, but also for preventive maintenance."

One of the services the company offers its contract customers is ensuring that gages outsourced to other labs are operating with the appropriate accreditation and are calibrating within their certified scope of capability. Using agreed upon business rules, Bagan also purchases new equipment, ensures it has the appropriate calibration certificates and is on the Master Gage List before the equipment hits customer's docks.



Coming online

Starrett Calibration Services Inc., a division of The L.S. Starrett Co., a manufacturer of inspection, measurement and metrology equipment, is planning to launch its online calibration service in April or May.

As with the Bagan site, Shaw says that their system will allow users to store all of their gage histories and certifications on Starrett Calibration Service's servers.

"With our calibration software program, users can go onto the Internet with any Web access, and put in their password and review all calibration data done in our lab such as when it was done and who it was done by. They can do this no matter where they are located in the world."

After the calibration is performed and the gage returned, the gage history and certificate are kept on file. End users can search by the part number or unique identification number, and print out the certificate or view it online.

The reduction in paperwork is an advantage, but end users still must look beyond that feature and focus on the company doing the servicing. "One of the best aspects of our service is that we are A2LA and ISO 17025 accredited," Shaw says. "Once you get beyond the calibration company's accreditation, people should look at the equipment that is used to calibrate the product and the training that the technicians undergo."

Shaw adds that all of its technicians undergo a constant training program to keep their skills sharp, as well as to learn how to best utilize new equipment. For instance, Shaw says the company recently purchased a SIP 550 calibration machine, which is considered to be one of the most accurate machines in the world.

In addition, the equipment directly interfaces with the gage management software to ensure data integrity. "Data integrity is everything," Shaw says. "It comes back to measurement uncertainty. Users should be sure that a laboratory has the proper equipment, which is accurate and reliable. They should ask, ‘What are the lab controls? Are they in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment or are they in some room that wasn't being used with an air conditioner in the window?'"



Software

Data integrity is also a key aspect of NIST's new virtual calibration program. Surface measurement instruments such as stylus profilers and optical profilers are used to characterize the roughness of surfaces. Most of the measurement instruments are microcomputer-based systems, which contain both surface analysis software and database/data storage. "Each measurement instrument has its own analysis software and data format," says Dr. Son Bui, director of the NIST program. "When a surface is measured, the measurement instrument generates a data file and stores it on a local disk. The data file is then analyzed by the analysis software provided in the surface measurement instrument. The data analysis software and any errors contained within the code are generally hidden from the user.

"Most of the time, detailed documentation on the algorithm employed within software implementations is unavailable to the user," Bui says. "The user is unable to verify the accuracy of the analysis algorithm. This indicates the need for a standards working group to help ensure traceability in algorithm development by providing and maintaining a set of master algorithms and data sets for companies, universities and instrument manufacturers to compare and validate their surface analysis software."

NIST, has developed a Web-based verification of software used in surface metrology and a database of virtual calibration standards for that purpose.

The NIST virtual surface calibration Web site is up and running and is scheduled to be released to the public in 2004. The initial version of the Web site includes surface profile data, associated calculated parameters, and NIST 2-D surface analysis tools. 3-D surface topographic data and associated calculated parameters will be available on a public NIST Web site in 2005.

"The rationale behind software verification and the database is to ensure that both the system designer and the user have confidence in the accuracy of the calculation procedures or the implementation of algorithms found in standards or otherwise in software," he says. "Once the project is completed, the user is able to access standard data sets with known surface parameters calculated by NIST for validating the accuracy of the analysis software. On the other hand, the user can send surface profiles and topographic images to NIST Web-based verification of software for calculation of surface parameters."



Tech tips

• Internet browsers can be used to track calibration activities and needs from anywhere in the world.

• Calibration histories and certificates can be viewed online without the need to store them inhouse.

• Gages can be tracked within the end user's company, and its status can be checked while it is at the calibration house.