If your company is involved in manufacturing, chances are that a good portion of your company's assets include measurement and test equipment (M&TE). This includes everything from simple go/no-go plug gauges to air-pressure gauges, voltmeters, micrometers and calipers on up to very sophisticated equipment such as robotic coordinate measurement machines and scanning electron microscopes.
M&TE are those assets your company uses to make critical decisions on whether to pass or fail incoming materials, in-process work and finished goods.
Of course, M&TE itself must be periodically inspected, tested and calibrated as part of the quality process. Poor or unreliable measurements result in faulty decisions and questionable product quality. Calibration management software can be crucial to helping maintain equipment accuracy and properly calibrated testing equipment.
Calibration management software saves time, effort and money. Computerizing your calibration records makes them instantly available in the event of product quality problems or a quality system audit.
A variety of calibration management software exists. Competition has brought variety, selection, more powerful features and, best of all, better pricing.
Minimalist packages offer fewer features and simpler operations that are essentially electronic versions of the old 3" x 5" card record-keeping systems. These entry-level systems are typically priced at less than $500 and are easy to set up and use.
Next, midrange level ($500 to $2,500) packages typically use a relational database, designed for either stand-alone operations or multi-user network installations. Most midrange software contains such tools as enhanced/customized reporting, user-defined record sorting, analytical and forecasting reports, and trend charts. Some packages automatically make interval adjustments; calculate uncertainty values; perform statistical studies on gauge repeatability, reproducibility, linearity and stability; and offer Internet/intranet support.
Higher priced ($5,000 or more) packages include even more functions. Some packages offer workload organization and queuing, customer invoicing, inventory control, accounting functions and personnel management. Most packages in this range are designed for relational databases that run on client/server database platforms, such as Oracle, Informix or Microsoft's SQL Server. Generally, this type of system appeals to both commercial calibration labs and large in-house calibration labs that may also provide service to outside companies.
The first and most important step for any software purchase is identifying what functions you need. For example, you might need to manage calibration system records, including the gauge master record and associated calibration history records. Or you might want to keep track of gauge locations and maintain an ongoing list of all gauge movement in and out of the calibration lab, gauge crib and within your manufacturing 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 gauges, cut paperwork, make records easier for other departments to access, decrease the costs of overcalibrating and minimize the risks of undercalibrating.
Consider your company's software operating requirements and standards. Select an application that can best utilize your computer's memory and storage resources. If you plan to run and share the application with several users on a net-work system such as Novell Netware or Windows NT, make sure the application supports networking. Other criteria include ease of use, user documentation, training required, product warranty, guarantee policies, license pricing and any policies imposed on your company by regulatory agencies.
Examine the package's training, support, reliability and features. Ask software supplier candidates for references, and take the time to follow up on them. Knowing what other buyers liked and disliked most about the package can help you make an informed decision. You may even want to check whether your customers and suppliers are using a package that you're considering.
The Internet is a great place to investigate a potential product and supplier. Web sites often contain the latest product information (usually more current than the supplier's printed materials), including late-breaking features, announcements about new releases, technical support issues and even free downloadable demo programs. Most calibration management software suppliers maintain Web sites; ask them for their site's address or use a Web-based search engine.
As soon as you've narrowed your choices to a relatively low number (i.e., 10 or fewer), ask each supplier for a demonstration from a local sales representative or a demonstration program that you can evaluate yourself.
When attending a demonstration or evaluating a package yourself, keep in mind how well the package meets your needs. Try to keep your focus on the fundamentals even when faced with technical jargon, marketing hype, and a dizzying array of features and splashy graphics. Always ask yourself, "So, how does this feature help me?" during the review process.
Perfection is unrealistic; if you like the overall package but feel that it's missing something you need, ask if the supplier is willing to customize the software or provide a customization kit so that you or your programming staff can make any necessary changes. Even though you've already conducted a thorough review of the software's capabilities, make sure that the supplier will guarantee your satisfaction with the software's performance after installation.
Database—This may not seem very important at first, but it really is a critical element. 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 elementary task and should be left to the few companies that specialize in it, such as Microsoft, Oracle and IBM.
Even if the supplier uses an acceptable database technology, be sure to ask them if they encrypt their records. Encryption is an old practice that some unscrupulous software companies use to keep customers from switching to another software package unless the customer pays a large data export fee. It's your data, and you should not be held hostage to one software company or package. If the package includes built-in database record export capabilities (such as to dBASE or Excel files), you can be reasonably assured that your data is portable.
For single-user desktop or network implementations with 25 or fewer concurrent users, database records should be maintained in an industry-standard format such as Microsoft Access, FoxPro, dBASE, Paradox or Btrieve files. One advantage of Microsoft Access is that it keeps all data tables and indexes in a single file. Other databases use a separate file for each table and index, which could leave you with hundreds of files instead of just one. Having too many files can affect network performance and can be more difficult to manage and back up. If you need a client/server calibration management software package, choose applications compatible with your existing system. If you need both the client/server database system and the calibration software, 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, 98 or NT 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 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 gauge, a detailed calibration and maintenance history, and a gauge tracking system for easily recalling gauges 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 a lot of calibrations to outside labs, you'll want to look for a program that has supplier records to track gauge 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, weeks, etc.) that you specify for the gauge. If you calibrate based on actual use instead of elapsed time, be sure to ask the supplier if this function 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, along with automatic date-and-time record stamping. Another timesaving function is the use of list boxes, giving users an automatic list of choices from which to select. This function saves typing 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 via e-mail, export them to word processing documents or spreadsheets, or publish them as HTML pages on a company's Web site.
The list of built-in reports should include at least a gauge 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, then you might be able to use an external report-writing utility such as Crystal Reports, Microsoft Access or 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, add to, 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, date, time and action performed.
If you choose a package that doesn't come with built-in security, you can still create a basic but very effective security system. Put the database on a network file server directory, then use the network operating system to restrict access to that directory to only selected users.
Year 2000 compliance—Don't take this for granted. Be sure to get a guarantee in writing.
Listed here are some options that may prove useful for your calibration management system:
Calibration label printer—Some suppliers offer specialty printers that generate calibration labels from the calibration management software. Since the information that goes on the label already resides within the database, this option simply reduces errors and creates easy-to-read, professional looking labels to which handwritten labels can't compare. Although these printers can be fairly expensive ($500 to $2,500), they do save time and can generally be used for many other labeling purposes in the quality department. CimWorks GageTalker (Kirkland, Washington) has developed a tiny device called a FlashCable that can be used as an "electronic calibration sticker." The FlashCable's built-in programmable memory not only stores communication parameters for specific digital and RS-232 gauges, but also stores critical gauge control information such as the gauge ID, calibration date, calibrator and next calibration date (so your calibration management or SPC software can alert operators when gauges need calibration).
Portable data collection—If your technicians regularly go out into the manufacturing plant or other locations to perform calibrations, you may want to look at packages that offer support for the low-cost and popular Palm Pilot (3Com) or Windows CE hand-held computers (manufacturers vary). If you've already invested in laptop PCs, ask the supplier how to synchronize your laptop computer calibration data with the main desktop database.
Bar code input—A simple bar code scan is much faster and more accurate than manual keyboard entry. If your company has a large number of calibration record transactions or operates a highly active gauge crib, you should seriously consider this option. You can even use a calibration label printer to generate the bar code labels for your equipment.
Direct gauge input—This automation option enters calibration measurements directly into the software. Direct gauge input of calibration measurements works only for gauges that have an electronic output port (usually RS-232) connected by cable to the computer. If large numbers of calibrations are the norm, you'll find this option very practical. For packages that don't inherently support direct gauge input, you might be able to use a third-party utility program (such as the TAL WinWedge utility) that tricks the software into thinking that the measurements have been entered manually via the computer keyboard.
Training—Most software packages are easier to use today than ever before, and most of today's packages contain many more functions and capabilities than they did in the past. You can use the program's online help, illustrated instruction manuals, tutorials and the supplier's technical support as resources for learning how to use a package. However, ask about the availability of training classes for those who are fairly new to computers or who want to learn to use a package in the fastest amount of time.
Support, updates and upgrades—Most suppliers offer technical support at no additional cost during the most critical period for your new software—typically the initial 90 days during setup and implemention. Find out if the supplier offers support beyond this initial period and what options are available such as on-site, telephone, fax, e-mail and Internet support.
Ask suppliers about their past procedures and standard policy concerning upgrades. For current customers, most suppliers offer major software upgrades at reduced rates, including new version releases, new operating system versions and network version upgrades.
FDA software validation—FDA-regulated companies are undoubtedly aware that they must validate any software that affects their processes and products. To help you validate calibration management software, suppliers might offer assistance for this time-consuming but important process in the form of test-method documents or software validation kits.
Source code—Few suppliers offer this option, and those that do usually make it too costly to consider unless you're making a major investment. However, you should still ask the supplier if the software's source code is available so you can make your own changes or modifications to your package. Should the supplier go out of business, having the code would allow you to extend the software's useful life by making your own changes. If the supplier doesn't offer the source code for direct purchase, ask if your company can be listed on a source code escrow account.
Supplier selection criteria
When choosing a calibration management software package, you should also consider the supplier's attributes. You might really like what a particular software package has to offer, but you must also remember that service and support are crucial elements of the system you choose.
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?
Experience—Find out how many years the company has been in business and for how many years it has sold this particular software package. Ask for detailed examples of how the supplier's experience has helped customers succeed in using the package. Think about these examples in terms of how well the supplier knows its customers.
Product development—Ask as many questions as you can to figure out how a supplier developed its product. Did it use industry-standard software development procedures? Ask how the company handles defects, software bugs, new releases and software fixes. Next, ask how the supplier plans to make sure that the software will stay up-to-date with current industry practices and standards. Will the supplier adapt the product for its customers' future needs and requests?
Stability—A supplier's financial stability will probably parallel product stability. Software companies need relatively little start-up capital, and government regulations are few. Because of this, make sure that the supplier you choose has financial staying power for when times get tough. Dun & Bradstreet, TRW or similar 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.
Remember not to confuse familiarity with reputation. Mass marketing campaigns and flashy advertisements are meant to familiarize people with a company's name and its products. A supplier earns its reputation, however, by providing top-quality products and outstanding customer service.
When selecting a calibration management software package, keep asking yourself the question, "How does this package meet my objectives?" By using this neutral approach to make a selection, you're certain to choose the right package for your company—a package that suits your needs and provides you with exceptional benefits. If you take the time now to make a solid, well-researched decision, you'll save time and grief later.