At the high end ($5,000 or more), packages offer even more capabilities, such as work load management and queuing, customer invoicing, inventory control, accounting functions and even personnel management. Many of these packages are based on a relational database design that runs on client/server database platforms such as Oracle, Informix or Microsoft SQL Server. These packages primarily are aimed at commercial calibration facilities or large in-house calibration labs that also provide calibration services to outside firms.
The first step for any calibration software purchase is to identify what you expect it to accomplish. You may, for example, want it to manage calibration system records, including the gage item master record and related calibration history records. Or perhaps you expect the software to keep track of gage locations and maintain a running list of all gage movement in and out of the calibration lab or gage crib. In addition, the program may need to maintain all relevant documents such as procedures, calibration work instructions, repair instructions and corrective action reports. Other objectives include improving work flow, reducing downtime due to faulty gages, reducing paperwork, making records more accessible to other departments, reducing the costs of overcalibrating and minimizing the risks of undercalibrating.
Balanced against software expectations are the company's purchasing budget as well as in-house operating requirements and operating systems such as Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows NT and Netware. Other factors, commonly referred to as "selection criteria," include the software's ease-of-use, user documentation, training required, product warranty, guarantee policies, license pricing and any policies imposed on your company by a regulatory agency.
It's important to evaluate the available products and suppliers that appear to meet your objectives. You'll want to determine how the various packages fit within the constraints you've identified. Ask potential software suppliers for references, and follow up on them. Study the package's training, support, reliability and features. It's also a good idea to find out what other buyers liked and disliked most about the package and see if your customers and suppliers are using a package that you're considering.
If you have access to the Internet, the World Wide Web is a good place to research a potential product and supplier. Web sites often contain more up-to-date product information than a supplier's printed literature, including late-breaking features, new release announcements, technical support issues and even free demo programs. Most calibration management software suppliers maintain Web sites; ask them for their Web address or use one of the available Web-based search engines such as AltaVista, Yahoo! or Infoseek.
Once you have narrowed your selection field to a few alternatives, ask for a demonstration from a local sales representative. Not all suppliers in this software category are willing to provide live presentations or extensive references for relatively inexpensive packages (less than $25,000). In that case, ask for a demonstration program that you can evaluate yourself. Most suppliers provide a demo package at no charge, but if they do charge, find out if the fee will be credited against the purchase price if you decide to keep the package.
Software suppliers that don't provide demonstration software usually require buyers to purchase the software license but offer a limited-time (generally 3060 days) money-back satisfaction guarantee. Purchasing a software license allows prospective buyers to objectively test the software supplier's technical support services. Buyers unhappy with the support they receive can simply leverage their money-back guarantee and return the package.
When attending a demonstration or self-evaluating a demo program, keep in mind how well the package meets your objectives. Avoid overlooking the fundamentals when faced with an onslaught of dazzling features and marketing hype. Often, a software presentation may show the package in the best possible light using the fastest computers and a small number of records.
At this point, you'll want to ask potential suppliers to explain aspects of the software that dissatisfy you. If you like the package, but it is missing something you need, ask if the supplier is willing to customize the software or provide a customization kit so that your programming staff can make any needed changes. Even after you carefully review the software and its capabilities, be sure the supplier will guarantee satisfaction with the software's performance after installation.
Software selection criteria
Database -- For desktop or network implementations, database records should be maintained in an industry-standard format such as Microsoft Access, FoxPro, dBASE, Paradox or Btrieve files. Those needing client/server versions of calibration management software should choose applications that are compatible with their existing client/server system. If both the client/server database system and the calibration software are required, select packages based on mainstream database systems such as Oracle, MS SQL Server, IBM DB2, Informix or Sybase.
Year 2000 compliance -- At this point in time, it's tempting to take year 2000 compliance for granted in current market software. Don't. Even if a supplier claims that its package is Y2K compliant, ask for demonstrable proof (or better yet, ask for a test plan so that you can validate it yourself). If you like a package that isn't Y2K compliant, ask the supplier how it plans to correct the problem. Be sure to get the guarantee in writing.
User interface -- Most applications in this category now use a graphical user interface that operates under Windows, Windows 95 or Windows NT. If you need a character-mode application that runs on a terminal connected to a mini or mainframe computer, your selections will be very limited. Likewise, very few Macintosh packages are available. To reduce training time and simplify operations, the user interface should conform to industry design standards. It should share the same basic look and feel as your word processing and spreadsheet applications, operate and function similarly and use peripherals without requiring application-specific configurations.
Record types -- At a minimum, these should include a master identification list for each gage as well as a detailed calibration and maintenance history, and a gage tracking system for easily recalling gages when it's time to calibrate them. The package also should allow you to store calibration procedures for easy reference. Especially useful for organizations that outsource a lot of calibrations to outside labs are supplier records that track gage suppliers and calibration service providers.
Functions -- These should include automatic due-date calculations based on whatever calibration time interval (e.g., days, weeks, months or years) is specified for the gage. The software should facilitate sorting and filtering records by ID, location, description and calibration due date. Time-saving functions might include record copying, which also helps ensure consistent record entries. List boxes, another time-saving function, present users with a choice of values from which to select. This function not only saves typing time but also guards against invalid entries.
Reporting -- The software should allow for a variety of sorting and filtering options. A report preview option allows users to view reports on-screen before printing them. More advanced packages allow reports to be sent via e-mail to co-workers, exported to word processing documents or spreadsheets, or published as an HTML page on a company's Web site.
At a minimum, the list of built-in reports should include a gage record, calibration due notice, calibration history and certificate. A calibration work order, calibration worksheet and label printing also are useful. If a package doesn't support ad-hoc or custom-designed reports, then an external report-writing utility such as Crystal Reports (Seagate Software), Microsoft Access or Excel sometimes can be used, provided that the calibration software uses a database in a supported file format.
Security -- If database security is important, look for a package that incorporates multilevel security, which allows different access levels, depending on the user. The security scheme should allow you to control a user's rights to view, add to, change and/or delete records. The program may allow you to vary these rights, depending upon the area of the program that the user is in. Some advanced security schemes will even maintain an audit trail log, which is a running history of the user's name, date, time and action performed.
If a package doesn't have a built-in security system, basic security is still possible. Place the database on a network file server directory, then use the operating system to allow access to the directory only to designated users.
Some users may need additional calibration management software options, including the following:
Bar code input -- Scanning a bar code is much faster and more accurate than keyboard entry. Supermarkets, video stores and warehouses save tremendous amounts of time and money using this technology. Companies with a large number of calibration record transactions should seriously consider this option.
Direct gage input -- Similar to bar code scanning, this option enters calibration measurements directly into the software. Direct gage input of calibration measurements works only for gages that have an electronic output port (usually RS-232) connected by cable to the computer. This option is useful when large numbers of calibrations are the norm. If a package doesn't inherently support direct gage input, it's possible to purchase a third-party utility program that tricks the software into thinking that the measurements have been entered manually via the computer keyboard.
Source code -- This option is rarely available and too expensive to consider unless you're making a significant investment. However, ask the supplier if the software's source code is available. You may want to make your own changes or modifications to your package. Also, in the event the supplier's business fails, you at least have the option of extending the software's useful life by making changes yourself.
If the source code isn't available, ask if your company can be listed on a source code escrow account (there may be a one-time or annual fee for this). A source code escrow account agent is a third party responsible for maintaining a copy of the software's source code. Not only does this protect the software developer against catastrophes like theft and fire, it also protects customers in the event that the supplier's business fails.
FDA software validation -- Companies that are FDA-regulated no doubt are aware that any software that affects their processes and products must be validated. To help validate calibration management software, find out if any assistance such as test-method documents or software validation kits is available for this time-consuming but necessary task.
Training -- For the most part, software packages have become somewhat easier to use. They do, however, tend to have a lot more functions and capabilities than in the past. On-line help, illustrated instruction manuals, tutorials and the supplier's technical support are all resources for learning how to use a package. However, those who are fairly new to computers or who want to learn to use a package in the shortest amount of time should ask if training classes are available.
Support, updates and upgrades -- Technical support usually is provided at no additional cost during the most important time period, which is typically the initial 90 days when you're setting up and implementing the software. Ask if extended support is available beyond this initial period and what options -- such as on-site, telephone, fax, e-mail and Internet support -- are available.
Extended support generally comes in annual time increments such as one- and two-year contracts. Support on demand also may be an option. Some suppliers may charge per call or incident, usually $25 or more. Another common approach is to charge per minute, typically $2 or $3 per minute via a 900 telephone number. Some suppliers do offer free lifetime support. This is great, but be sure to ask specifically what this means because you usually get what you pay for.
Software updates also should be provided at no extra charge, at least during the initial 90-day period. Updates include bug-fixes, patches and minor feature enhancements to the software. Usually, continued software updates are available by purchasing an extended support and update service agreement.
Major software upgrades such as new version releases, new operating system versions and network version upgrades usually are available at reduced rates. Ask suppliers about their past practices and standard policy regarding upgrades.
Supplier selection criteria
The software decision-making process also should take into consideration the supplier's attributes. Even if you really like a particular software package, remember that service and support is a big part of the system you choose.
Service -- Although you may not have purchased the software yet or had an opportunity to challenge the supplier's support services, you can still assess the company in this area. Evaluate how well your questions were answered, how quickly your phone calls were returned and if the supplier's staff seemed courteous and professional.
Experience -- Check how many years the company has provided the software package and how long it has been in business. Find out how well it knows its customers. Ask for specific examples of how the supplier's experience has helped customers succeed in using the package.
Product development -- Try to determine how a supplier developed its product. Did it use industry-standard software development practices? Ask how defects, software bugs, new releases and software fixes are dealt with. How will the supplier ensure that the software will stay up-to-date with current industry practices and standards? Will the supplier accommodate its customers' future needs and requests?
Stability -- Financial stability may serve as a good indicator of product stability. Compared with setting up a manufacturing business, software companies need very little start-up capital, and government regulations are few. Because of this, software buyers should be sure that the supplier they choose will have financial staying power when times get tough. Dun & Bradstreet, TRW or similar services can profile potential suppliers.
Keep in mind that buying a package from a big supplier doesn't always equate to product stability or better support. Sometimes it's easier for these companies simply to discontinue a product in a small or declining market and move on, whereas smaller companies must make every effort to improve and promote their product or risk going out of business.
Reputation -- Make an effort to examine a potential supplier's reputation. The repeat customer rate is a good measure of a supplier's reputation. Ask the supplier for other customers' names, and consult with co-workers and outside sources to see if they have had any experience with the supplier.
Don't confuse familiarity with reputation. Mass marketing campaigns and big advertisements really serve to familiarize people with a company's name and its products. A supplier's reputation, however, is earned through providing superior products and excellent customer service.
When choosing a calibration management software package, try to focus on the question, "How does this package meet my needs?" Using an objective approach during the selection process is the best way to provide your company with a product that will work well for it. Taking the time now to carefully select the right package will save a lot of time later regretting a hasty decision.
About the author
Dave K. Banerjea is president of CyberMetrics Corp., developers of the GAGEtrak calibration management system. After serving as a plant and corporate-level quality engineer for several years, Banerjea founded CyberMetrics in 1988 to fulfill the need for a comprehensive calibration management software package. He can be reached at telephone (800) 777-7020 or via e-mail at email@example.com.