Select the best gage management software package for your company.
by Dave K. Banerjea
Congratulations! Management has approved your purchase of a gage-management
software solution. Now you're probably wondering where to begin: What kinds of packages are available? How do you pick the software that will best fit your company's needs? How much should you
First and foremost, don't let software choose you. Too often, companies find themselves with programs inappropriate for their needs because they didn't spend enough time
making an informed decision; they just bought the first package they looked at. The "latest and greatest" may not be the most appropriate; it may just be more complicated and more expensive.
Taking the time to assess your needs and choosing a gage management software package to meet them will keep you from wasting money and ending up with something that just doesn't work for you.
The key step for any software purchase is identifying the functions you require. For example, you might need to manage calibration system records, including the gage master
record and associated calibration history records. Or you might want to keep track of gage locations and maintain an ongoing list of all gage movement in and out of the calibration lab, gage crib
and your facility. The program might also need to store all relevant documents, such as procedures, calibration work instructions, repair instructions and corrective action reports. You might
want to enhance your work flow, reduce downtime due to faulty gages, cut paperwork, make records easier for other departments to access, decrease the costs of overcalibrating and minimize the
risks of undercalibrating.
Some gage management packages have strengths in certain areas, such as issuing and returning gages and tracking their locations. Other solutions are
dedicated to extensive calibration data analysis or in-depth, flexible reporting. Still other packages are primarily designed for ease of use, with simpler interfaces and perhaps a limited
feature set. Be sure to match a package's primary strengths to your primary needs.
all, don't buy any software package if it won't be useful to you right away. Most of us have bought software at one time or another thinking that we needed it but never found the time to learn or
start using it. The package sits on the shelf, becoming increasingly dusty and obsolete with each passing week, until finally it may no longer be backed by warranty or technical support. Don't
let your software go unused. If you don't have the time to learn and use it right away, postpone the purchase until you do. Most things in the computer industry get better, faster and cheaper as
time goes on, so don't feel pressured to buy something just to get it in your hands now. Buy a package when you're good and ready to learn it and use it.
Ease of use
Choose a package that's both easy to learn and use. It should use industry-standard terminology and operate in
similar fashion to "mainstream" packages, such as your spreadsheet or word processing programs. If the software is difficult to learn and difficult to use, why bother with it? The purpose of
software is to simplify your activities, and you don't have the time to waste if it doesn't do so. Enough good products exist that you'll almost always have at least one other choice. In a
manufacturing situation, both managers and technicians may have to learn the product, and if time is short (e.g., when an audit reveals a deficiency in your calibration system), an easy-to-learn
package is even more critical. If you can't find the perfect package right away, keep looking. Eventually you'll find well-designed software that's quick to learn, easy to use and appropriate for
people with varying levels of computer experience.
When considering all of the various
features that software vendors claim their packages offer, try to determine the real benefit of each. Having lots of features is great, but make sure the features don't get in the way of
usability and that you are not paying for features that you may never use or need. Always ask yourself how a given feature could benefit you or help you meet your needs.
Gage management software features can be divided into several major areas:
ISO 9000/QS-9000 compliance—Most manufacturers need a gage-management software package that ensures that the record keeping and measurement system
analysis requirements of the ISO 9000 and QS-9000 quality standards are met. Fortunately, most packages do a fairly good job of doing so, but it's best to verify
this with the software vendor just to be sure.
Database—This may not seem very important at first, but database compatibility can greatly affect other software packages' reliability and support. Stay away from
packages that rely on obscure, unheard-of database technology or "something that we wrote ourselves." Developing a good, reliable database engine is no simple task
and should be left to the few companies that specialize in it, such as Microsoft, Oracle and IBM.
Make sure the package you choose includes a built-in export utility (such as to dBASE, Microsoft Excel, or ASCII files). This way you can be reasonably assured
that your data is portable and not held hostage by the software vendor should you wish to change to another package in the future.
For single-user desktop or network implementations with 25 or fewer concurrent users, database records can be easily maintained in an industry-standard format
such as Microsoft Access, FoxPro, dBASE, Paradox or Btrieve files. If you need a client/server database system that can handle very large numbers of records and
concurrent users, select a package based on a mainstream database system such as Oracle, Microsoft's SQL Server, Sybase, IBM DB2 or Informix.
User interface—Almost all applications in this category use graphical user
interfaces that operate under Windows 95 (or higher) and require a mouse to operate effectively. If you need a character-mode application that runs on a terminal
connected to a mini or mainframe computer, you'll find a small number of packages to choose from. Likewise, your selection of Macintosh-
compatible packages will be limited. Make sure that the user interface conforms to industry design standards. Otherwise, training time will be longer, and using the
program will be more difficult. The user interface should look and feel like your word processing and spreadsheet applications. It should operate and use peripherals
without requiring application-specific configurations.
Record types—The software should contain, at a minimum, a master identification list for each gage, a detailed calibration and maintenance history, and a
gage-tracking system for easily recalling gages when it's time to calibrate them. You should also be able to store calibration procedures within the software for easy
reference. Additionally, if you outsource many calibrations to outside labs, you'll want to look for a program that has supplier records to track gage suppliers and calibration service providers.
Functions—One essential function is the automatic calculation of due dates based on whatever calibration time interval (e.g., days or weeks) that you specify
for the gage. If you calibrate your gages based on actual use instead of elapsed time, be sure to ask the supplier if this system is supported. The software should, at
the very least, facilitate sorting and filtering records by ID, location, description and calibration due date. Some packages feature timesaving functions, such as record
copying (which also helps ensure consistent record entries and offers automatic date-and-time record stamping) or the use of list boxes (which give users an
automatic list of choices from which to select, saving time while preventing invalid entries).
Reporting—As with records, the software should offer a wide range of sorting
and filtering options for reports. One helpful option is the report-preview feature, which lets users see reports on-screen before printing. Some more sophisticated
packages allow users to send reports by e-mail, export them to word processing documents or spreadsheets, or publish them as HTML pages on a company's Web
site. Some packages include the ability to create reports over the Web using a standard browser.
The list of built-in reports should at least include a gage record, calibration due
notice, calibration history and certificate. Other useful reports include calibration work orders, calibration worksheets and calibration labels. If a package doesn't
support ad hoc or custom-designed reports, you might be able to use an external report-writing utility such as Crystal Reports, Microsoft Access or Microsoft
Excel, as long as the calibration software uses a database in a supported file format.
Security—If your security needs are simple, look for a package that offers at
least single-level security (i.e., you're either authorized to use the software or not). If database security is important and you need flexibility, look for a package that
incorporates multi-level security, which should allow you to control each user's right to view, append, change and delete records. Some advanced security schemes
will even encrypt your database records with a user-defined encryption keyword and maintain an audit trail log, which is a running history of the user's name, the
time and date, and the action performed.
Software without good documentation is frustrating to learn and use, so choose software that is well-documented. The documentation might come in several forms
(e.g., it may consist of printed manuals, electronic manuals and context-sensitive online help files). Good documentation helps you to learn and use the product
efficiently. Electronic documents—such as help files and online user manuals—make searching for specific information much easier than flipping
through paper manuals. On the other hand, paper manuals don't require electricity to be read, so they can be studied anywhere. Having both printed and electronic documentation is, of course, best.
Unlike physical or hardware products, software is relatively easy to change, update
and upgrade. As a result, software is really a work in progress, and new versions are periodically released. When choosing a package, find out about the
manufacturer's upgrades policy. Are upgrades provided free within an initial time from purchase, such as 90 days, or is there a charge? What about later upgrades?
How often have they upgraded in the past? If the manufacturer charges for upgrades, what has it historically charged? What are upgrade charges as compared
to the standard prices? Upgrades should normally be available at a very good discount (25 percent or more) to existing users when new versions of the software
are released, so you might want to make sure this will be true in your case before you buy.
Anyone who has used computers for a little while knows the signs of an unstable application. Blue warning screens, locked-up keyboards and generally strange
behavior are all part of the day-to-day operations when you're working with buggy software. While it's difficult to determine a program's stability by staring at a
brochure or magazine advertisement, you should try to get a trial copy (usually free) and test it out for yourself on your own equipment. Sometimes, a formally
reliable software package can become unstable after another unrelated package is installed, usually because the new package overwrites a shared software library
component file, such as a dll or ocx file.
This buzzword simply means that a software application will meet your needs now and in the future. If your organization is growing, you need to ensure that the
software you purchase now will be able to meet your needs at least a year from now. You may only have a few hundred records now, but in a few years, you may
have several hundred thousand—Will the package handle the extra volume without slowing to a crawl? Also, while you may not need to run your database over the
Web now, it may be something that you want to do in a year. Having a scaleable software package allows you to run your system over an extended period of time,
safeguarding your investment and saving you money.
Tight budgets are everywhere these days, so look for good value in the software you buy. There's no doubt that some very good software is nevertheless
overpriced, which becomes particularly obvious when it's compared to other good products that do the same job. When comparing prices of different packages, look
carefully at both the single-user and multi-user license prices. Some vendors offer large discounts on multi-user licenses even though the single-user price may initially seem higher.
Remember, the value of software is not in its price, but in what it does for you.
When choosing the package, you should also take a close look at the company selling you the software. Aspects on which to evaluate the potential vendor include:
Service—Even if you haven't purchased the software yet, you can still evaluate the company's service. How well did staff members answer your questions? How
quickly did they return your phone calls? Were they polite and professional? Be sure to ask about their support service policies: Are technical support services free or
fee-based? If the vendor charges for support is it an annual fee or a per-incident fee? What methods of support are available to customers (on-site support,
telephone-based or e-mail)? How long do they continue supporting an older version of a product after a new version has been released?
Experience—Find out how many years the company has been in business and
how many years it has sold the particular software you're considering. Next, ask how the supplier ensures that the product will stay up-to-date with current industry
practices, regulations and standards. Will the supplier adapt the product for its customers' future needs and requests?
Company stability—Software companies need relatively little start-up capital,
and government regulations are few. Therefore, you—the consumer—need to make sure the supplier you choose has the financial strength to last through economic
downturns. Dun & Bradstreet, TRW or similar credit rating services can provide you with reports on potential suppliers.
Reputation—Look at the supplier's repeat-customer rate and request the names
of other customers that you can question about the supplier's reliability and service. You can also check with co-workers and outside sources to see what kinds of
experiences they've had with the supplier.
Taking the time to select the best gage-management software package for your company does take some effort. Nevertheless, it takes even more effort to recover
from the wasted time and energy resulting from hastily picking the wrong package. During your evaluation process, always ask yourself, "How does this package
benefit me and help achieve my objectives?" Choose the right package for your company—the package that does indeed meet all of your needs and provides you with the greatest benefits.
About the author
Dave K. Banerjea is president of CyberMetrics Corp., developers of the GAGEtrak
gage management system. He can be reached by telephone at (800) 777-7020 or via e-mail at email@example.com .