Just a few years ago, before the widespread use of the Internet, South African metrologists depended on one of the major local distributors for branded measurement products under names such as Fluke, Toptronic and Majortech.
Today, a simple search using eBay turned up 144 hits under the word `multimeter', and it seems as if the latter are being produced in every single country in the world including Korea, Taiwan and China.
These websites promote a plethora of look-alike products with very impressive specifications, and of course purchase is as easy as entering a credit card number. The result is that people are buying products unseen, often unsuitable for the measurement task and with no recourse to the seller when something goes wrong.
Measurement traceability today is critical and often the first realisation that an instrument is sub-standard comes when it has to be calibrated. The brand look-alikes often prove difficult to calibrate across ranges and this can result in high uncertainty of measurement. The other 'sting in the tail' brought about by Internet purchasing is the fact that traditional full-support distributors have themselves had to cut back on their skilled technical support staff. Whatever benefits the Internet may have there is still no substitute for a good field applications engineer who can look at the application and recommend measurement solution(s).
Instruments themselves are changing from being electronic hardware based to a combination of hardware, software and firmware with greatly enhanced functionality. Verification of software becomes a lot more difficult for those tasked with calibrating such instruments while regular changes in operating system implies shorter life cycles for such devices (as an example, how many versions of Windows have we seen in the last few years and how many people have encountered cases of non-compatibility with older software programmes?).
In terms of more sophisticated measurement instrumentation a growing area for the future is going to be the quality of electrical power. With the sophistication of instrumentation and not just the old resistive load like the incandescent light bulb much cleaner power will be required in future. This is one area of measurement where the well-established brand names still have no real competition and it is likely to remain that way.
In the plant
On the process plant side the trend is to make expensive plant work harder and longer with improving efficiency and productivity being the drivers. This is an area where test equipment has a major role to play, as all process parameters must be measured accurately. In order to get the process right, more and more plant operators are putting monitors on top of the existing process instrumentation. Using the intranet and Internet means that these monitors can be viewed by plant engineers from a central location and efficiency of remote plant can be monitored remotely with corrective action being initiated timeously when necessary.
ISO 9000 and ISO 17025
2003 is significant in that it sees the final implementation of two new international standards, ISO 9000:2000 and ISO/IEC 17025. ISO 9000:2000 is a radical revision of the 1994 series of quality management system standards and it has to be implemented by ISO certified companies before the end of December this year. Amongst other changes the new standard places more emphasis on customer satisfaction and it is also more in line with 'Excellence Award' schemes introduced in many countries including South Africa (through the South African Excellence Foundation). ISO/IEC 17025 is the standard to which test and calibration laboratories must be accredited, and it replaces the ISO/IEC Guide 25. The new standard was fully implemented by the international laboratory community at the end of January this year.
The age-old confusion between these two ISO standards remains with many people not understanding that they are very different. ISO 9000 is an international standard for a quality management system. A company applies for certification (or registration) to a body such as the SABS, SGS International or TšV. These certification bodies are in turn accredited by a national accreditation body such as the South African National Accreditation System (SANAS). These national bodies are members of the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) and carry out peer reviews of each other. This process ensures that an ISO 9000 certificate issued by a body accredited by one of the member organisations of the IAF (most major world economies) will be recognised in other member states.
The situation with ISO/IEC 17025 is very different in that the laboratory concerned is accredited by the recognised accreditation body such as SANAS. 17025 requires not just a quality management system but looks at the competence of personnel and the procedures used by the laboratory. The laboratory on successful application has a scope of calibration procedures (eg, mass, electrical AC or pressure) that it can issue calibration certificates for. In the case of a testing laboratory this would be a test report. These calibration certificates and/or test reports are then recognised internationally by the many signatories to the ILAC (International Laboratory Accreditation Co-operation) Arrangement, which includes all major economies and many developing ones. Calibration laboratories participate in annual audit schemes run under the supervision of the National Metrology Laboratory where samples of a weight for example would be measured by all laboratories. Test laboratories regularly participate in proficiency testing schemes and could be for example required to test a blind spiked sample of for example water.
Calibration laboratories calibrate the test and measurement equipment used in the plant ensuring measurement traceability as required by ISO 9000. More often than not companies make use of independent accredited laboratories as a result of the vast scope of measurement. This ranges from mass, pressure and temperature right through to AC, DC and RF electrical. Most laboratories possess accreditation in a limited number of fields. Testing laboratories are usually located in house where they continually monitor the consistency of the product being produced be this water, food, wine, cement, coal or mineral ore. One of the benefits of having an internationally recognised test laboratory is that the product produced can be certified locally with a test report ensuring that costly re-testing is not required by the import country. The same process works for calibration certificates and here an example is a local company that manufactures cockpit displays for a number of prestigious car marques. These displays must have the correct level of luminance and making use of an instrument called a spectroradiometer ensures this. Confidence in the final product is provided to the buyer through having these instruments regularly calibrated by an accredited laboratory.
Note should be made of the high standing that South Africa through SANAS has within ILAC. The Chairman of ILAC (recently elected to a second period of office of two years) is the CEO of SANAS, namely Mike Peet. SANAS is also represented on IAF committees and has a special responsibility within ILAC and the IAF to look after the interests of developing economies. While the terms for recognition of an accreditation body are rigid in terms of competence, South Africa can play a role in ensuring that they meet the required levels of competency and making certain that the playing field is indeed level.
The metrologist - a dying breed?
As for metrologists they remain in short supply and this and an in-house calibration laboratory is still an area that is subject to budget cuts. Despite the need to be sure that you are measuring accurately, within the uncertainty of measurement, and with instruments that are traceable back to national measuring standards, many companies still do not see the value of having a person in house who understands the science of measurement, even though this is implicit in terms of ISO 9000 itself. In the wider sense of measurement it is interesting to note how rapidly the process of accreditation has spread through the medical laboratory community. Here of course, a mistake in the handling or testing of a blood or urine sample can result in loss of life, but then can industry bear the cost of plant downtime as a result of inadequate process measurements?
For more information contact Maurice McDowell, consulting editor, SA Instrumentation & Control, email@example.com
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