They say, "If you want
it done right, do it yourself." You've said it, I've
said it, everyone has said it. But what happens when you
must rely on an outside party to provide a service over
which you'd prefer to have control? How do you identify
work that can be performed in-house and work that should,
or must, be performed elsewhere? How do you decide who should
do the work? And how do you maintain compliance to your
quality program when a third party does the work?
What often begins as a simple procurement process can
quickly become a complex quality issue. This is particularly
true with outsourcing calibration services. The calibration
of test and measurement instrumentation must meet quality
requirements that are critical to employees' safety, your
product's quality, and maintaining your accreditation programs
and auditability. Trusting a third party to meet these requirements
means not only making that leap of faith but also establishing
a well-defined process for outsourcing calibrations.
Before beginning such a process, you should ensure there's
a need for outsourcing. Third-party calibration services
might be required for a number of reasons. Most often, in-house
calibration isn't possible because adequate measurement
standards or technical expertise in a given measurement
discipline are lacking. Outsourcing instrumentation in this
instance must be weighed against purchasing appropriate
capital equipment or training. If the costs related to these
purchases are prohibitive, then outsourcing to a competent
calibration laboratory or the original equipment manufacturer
is an obvious alternative. It's sometimes wise to outsource
all calibrations, thus eliminating capital and administrative
For metrology laboratories with comprehensive measurement
capabilities, outsourcing is often only necessary for maintaining
traceability to a nationally recognized standard, most often
that of the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
Such outsourcing obviously entails choosing a high-quality,
reliable calibration lab. Because these instruments represent
the source for all calibrations and/or tests performed in-house,
the quality and accuracy of such calibrations are imperative.
Lacking traceability is often all it takes to shut down
a calibration program completely.
Sometimes organizations outsource in order to validate
and verify their own processes and procedures. When a measurement's
accuracy or predictability is critical to a process or service,
comparing in-house tests against those of an independent
party can provide a high level of confidence and reliability.
Furthermore, cooperative test and measurement programs
are instrumental in advancing metrological science and can
help fine-tune quality programs.
Once you've decided to outsource calibration of an instrument,
you have to decide where to send it. This is somewhat dependent
on why you've decided to outsource. For cases in which calibration
must be done elsewhere because of a simple inability to
perform the test in-house, the OEM is often the obvious
choice. After all, the OEM designed and manufactured the
instrument, so the OEM's calibrations would be specifically
designed for the unit being tested. And because OEMs generally
calibrate only the instruments they manufacture, the cost
is often lower by virtue of volume and specialization.
Some less-than-obvious considerations when selecting the
OEM are turnaround time and auditability. Because OEMs are
in the business of manufacturing, calibrations are often
performed as a value-added service, a fact that can affect
turnaround and measurement scope; in exchange for lower
costs, turnaround for the tests can--in some instances--stretch
into months. If the unit to be tested is critical to production
or service, a slow turnaround can result in lost revenues
and low productivity.
The ability to audit an OEM, as required by some quality
programs, can also be hindered by the nature of its business.
An OEM can't shut down its production line to accommodate
an auditor. Furthermore, it may have proprietary procedures
and methods that it must protect in order to maintain competitiveness
in its industry, thus preventing an auditor from performing
a comprehensive review. This can sometimes disqualify the
OEM as an approved service supplier, depending on the quality
In the event that outsourcing to the OEM is inappropriate,
plenty of professional calibration laboratories are available,
and they're concerned with only one thing: quality measurements.
Because they're not manufacturers, they can devote their
attention entirely to measurement science. They also understand
the importance of meeting every customer's specific quality
requirements and the necessity of performing those services
in a timely manner. And, because they're focused on metrology,
they've generally developed very high-precision procedures
When a professional calibration lab is required, there
are typically two types from which to choose: specialized
and comprehensive. A specialized laboratory provides calibrations
in a sole measurement discipline. For example, Homer Dulin,
of Long Beach, California, provides calibrations only in
gas- and liquid-flow technology. Because it has focused
on this technology for years, it can provide measurements
for flowmeters of all types, and it can do so with a great
degree of accuracy and competence. A specialized calibration
lab is a great choice when you have a limited number of
instruments to outsource.
But what if you have many different types of instrumentation?
These could certainly be sent to each of the relevant specialized
labs, but the resulting paperwork and quality review could
become a nightmare. Comprehensive calibration laboratories
are staffed by both specialists and generalists and can
perform measurements within a broad range of disciplines.
Using comprehensive laboratories like these can significantly
reduce administrative overhead, chain-of-custody tracking
Also, because these labs must maintain adequate staffing
to accommodate so many different disciplines, turnaround
is usually quick.
Another benefit of using a comprehensive calibration laboratory
is the ability to transfer all of your quality issues to
it. Because these labs address many disciplines and requirements,
they not only perform calibrations but manage entire quality
programs. Many companies have written their quality programs
to provide complete calibration outsourcing, which greatly
saves on capital and administrative costs. In addition to
performing calibrations, your calibration supplier will
also maintain your quality program by managing traceability,
audit trails, instrument failure, documentation and quality
So far, we've dealt with the administrative practicalities
of outsourcing calibrations. But our real concern, after
all, is quality. Quality programs are so important that
entire departments have been created to support them, and
the industry continues to expand the scope and precision
of measuring, quantifying and maintaining its programs.
Without such a firm commitment to quality, success is impossible
for any industry in today's demanding business climate.
How, then, can we impose a quality regimen on processes
that are out of our direct control? The answer is research,
documentation and review.
Prior to outsourcing calibrations, do your homework. Specifically,
check for industry accreditations. Calibration laboratories
accredited to such standards as the National Voluntary Laboratory
Accreditation Program or ISO 17025 have been audited to
meet extremely high quality and technology expectations.
Ask for a copy of the company's quality manual. The processes
contained therein will provide a good indication as to whether
the lab meets your quality requirements. If it doesn't have
a quality manual, seriously consider looking elsewhere for
Also ask for a list of companies that have approved the
lab as their supplier. If the list includes companies from
industries that demand an extremely high degree of quality,
such as aerospace or pharmaceutical, it's a good bet that
the lab holds to a high standard of compliance. If the lab
is the OEM, check to see if it reports to any regulating
agencies, such as the FDA or the FAA. If so, it's probably
required to maintain a rigid quality program.
Finally, when in doubt, perform a physical audit of the
facility in question.
When your research is completed and you've selected the
calibration lab that meets your requirements, thoroughly
document those requirements. Never assume the vendor knows
what you want. List every requirement in extreme detail,
no matter how trivial or ridiculous it may seem. This will
fulfill two aims: It ensures that you've made your vendor
aware of your needs, and it provides accountability after
the fact. For instance, when sending a temperature instrument
out for calibration, don't simply instruct them to "calibrate
from -20°C to +50°C." While this may seem like
a complete instruction, critical information is missing,
such as how many temperature points you need measured and
which ones. If you want calibration performed to a manufacturer's
specifications, review the user's manual and make note of
those specifications. All of this may seem like overkill,
but it'll prove invaluable when audit time arrives.
When you receive your instrument back from the calibration
lab, meticulously review the calibration documents, and
be sure to compare them against the aforementioned requirements
list. Because you've already established a list of criteria,
you can go through the calibration documents point by point,
ascertaining compliance. You'll be able to easily identify
any mistakes and/or omissions and have them corrected prior
to returning your instrument into service. Furthermore,
because you've notified the vendor of your requirements
prior to calibration, it's obligated to meet them. Also,
note any special remarks pertaining to the calibration,
particularly as they apply to out-of-tolerance conditions
or repairs. This information can be critical to your quality
program because it will assist in determining if any of
the tests performed with this instrument must be redone.
In any event, because you've been proactive in choosing
a supplier and providing instructions, your documentation
review will be effective and complete.
Outsourcing calibration services is sometimes inevitable
and sometimes a matter of choice. In either case, your concern
for quality compliance is well-justified. These concerns
can be mitigated through detailed research and documentation.
By identifying your critical quality requirements and communicating
them--without ambiguity--to your vendor, you'll have applied
quality controls to a third-party process. When you identify
the service provider that best meets your needs, establish
its commitment to quality compliance, provide it with detailed
instructions and review its documentation, you create a
valuable relationship with your vendor. Rather than being
an uninvolved third party, you're a partner in quality with
your calibration vendor, and your quality program is enhanced
by this collaboration. Through a mutual commitment to quality,
accuracy and meeting your customers' needs, you and your
vendor will raise the level of expected quality throughout
Shannon M. Spizzirri is the technical marketing advisor
for Edison ESI Metrology, a calibration services provider
to the aerospace, pharmaceutical, nuclear and high-tech
manufacturing industries. Letters to the editor regarding
this article can be sent to email@example.com.