Taking A Close Look at
If your current programs have year 2000 problems,
get moving! You won't have enough time in 1999
to solve all the problems.
by Bob Gregg
If you take time to research and select the programs that truly meet your needs, calibration software will prove a genuine ally in the lab, saving you both time and money. Although four main issues drive the current interest in calibration software, the first, and usually most pressing, reason is implementation of ISO 9000 or similar internal quality programs. Many software packages specifically address ISO 9000 issues and can speed you toward your registration goal.
Conversion from mainframe computers to PC networks, which often requires extensive software revamping, provides an opportunity to improve existing systems. Then there's the year 2000 problem, much less of a nightmare with relevant software. Companies now offer programs that make the necessary conversion to your existing programs. Finally, workload management more or less demands an intelligent companywide system. Whether your organization is downsizing, consolidating or coping with more work expected in less time, software provides a way to work faster and more efficiently.
But what is calibration software, exactly? It falls into five general categories:
Instrument controller software -- Whether written in-house, supplied along with a new instrument, standard or calibrator, or provided as a third-party after-market program, this software generates the actual readings taken during a calibration. Rather than referring to a calibration procedure that tells you what readings to measure and record, this software exercises the unit under test and records the results. The benefits include higher accuracy and reduced calibration time.
Data-analysis software -- Another software specialty, these programs analyze data generated during a calibration and provide information such as measurement uncertainty as well as recommendations to shorten or lengthen the calibration cycle. As units under test increasingly become more accurate, measurement uncertainty will have to replace the old accuracy-ratio approach (e.g., 4:1) to calibration.
Lab management software -- Consider this the central program that manages a calibration laboratory's overall process. Program functions include everything from receiving and calibrating to shipping and invoicing. The software must include recall reports, calibration certificates, calibration labels, bar codes and reports ranging from productivity to reverse traceability. Interfacing to other Windows products such as Microsoft Word and Microsoft Excel should be expected. Your lab management software would also maintain and manage unique requirements by instrument type or instrument owner as well as ISO 9000 and Z-540/Guide 25 requirements.
Integration -- In a perfect world, your lab management software interfaces with the other software in the lab, keeping all of the data and databases in alignment and reducing the time needed to complete the various steps. However, not all software is compatible, so you must select those combinations that best fit your operation. Each of the three major jobs -- generating data, analyzing data and managing your lab -- has unique requirements. Any number of eager software suppliers will demonstrate to you how their products satisfy the imperatives of one or more jobs.
Pay particular attention to specialization; no one company handles all three jobs neatly in one package. Drawback? No, not really. It stands to reason that no one knows more about a particular instrument than that instrument's manufacturer. Likewise, others specialize in the field of measurement uncertainty and calibration interval adjustment.
You can run separate packages to optimize your operations. It is even better when the different packages "talk" to each other. This keeps the databases aligned (e.g., instrument ID No., date of calibration) and allows you to enter redundant information (e.g., ID No., current date, your initials) only once. Ask software suppliers if they can provide gateways to other software packages you already own or would like to buy.
Custom vs. commercial-off-the-shelf -- The advantage of custom software is that it can be made to fit your exact process. The disadvantages are high initial cost, high support cost, higher risk (programmer retires!) and, usually, inadequate documentation.
The advantages of commercial software are so great that even organizations which can afford custom programs are opting for this approach. Look for a package that most closely fits your current operation, and be open-minded about adapting at least a little to what is available. Some companies offer a core off-the-shelf program with the option to specify custom changes or additions. Don't keep putting it off
If your current programs have year 2000 problems, get moving! You won't have enough time in 1999 to solve all the problems.
NCSL Z-540, Guide 25 and ISO 9000 all require quantities of complex data. Your responsibilities will increase, and you'll probably have to accomplish them using less money. Software can help immeasurably in improving accuracy, meeting quality control procedures and increasing productivity. Order literature, download demo software from the Internet, and ask a lot of questions. The right combination of software will make your calibration lab better and more efficient.
About the author
Bob Gregg is the president of NORFOX Software, which produces and distributes calibration management software. He has been involved with computer software implementation for 20 years, including mainframe and PC applications.
Gregg looks for software solutions that improve overall productivity while managing data. Active in industry trade organizations, he is a frequent contributor to trade publications for the industries in which he has worked.