The Importance of Measurement Expertise

E-mail Ray Peacock

Accurate measurements and good measurement practices are starting to get the attention they deserve as QA approaches such as Six-Sigma are increasingly adopted in process plants. Quality assurance pays--and so does thoughtful selection and informed application of measurement devices. Unfortunately, another development is eating away at the foundation of this progress.

Exacting and Reliable Measurement
Evidence of the positive momentum include the discussion of developments in measurement technologies and practices—and user needs—at several meetings this year, including the co-located Quality Expo Detroit and the Automotive Industry Action Group (AIAG) Best Practices Summit, both running June 7-8 in Novi, Michigan. The latter will feature a Metrology Interoperability Update and Panel Discussion with panelists from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler, and General Motors Corp. The quality assurance aspect of measurement figures prominently on the AIAG's agenda. This is further evidenced by the fact that the association is compiling the Third Edition of its Measurement Systems Analysis manual, a primer on measurement statistics and measurement quality assurance.

NIST, too, supports the quality agenda and has launched an ambitious assessment—one that is more far reaching than the few studies done in the past—of the nation's decentralized measurement system, the U. S. Measurement System (USMS). The aim is to determine whether this vital infrastructure can effectively address multiplying needs for ever-more exacting and reliable measurement tools and associated services, such as accredited calibration and testing laboratories. NIST will issue the final report in late June.

Opposing Forces
In contrast to this progress, we have been losing a reservoir of know-how as experienced engineers and technicians are retired or eliminated in "productivity" efforts that focus on "core operations." And there is yet no substitute for the experience these seasoned folks have acquired. I always thought that knowledge of the unique measurement needs and quirks in each plant and process were key to the core operations. Experience is a treasure, and I'd say that tossing out the know-how along with the people amounts to a serious management failure.

The American Society for Quality quotes a recent study by the Aberdeen Group as saying, "Although quality has a strong impact on costs and customer satisfaction, many companies continue to struggle with basics such as data collection, disparate systems maintenance, and the enforcement of standard operating procedures (SOPs). (The report is titled The Product Quality Benchmark Report: Achieving Quality across the Global Manufacturing Network.)

Well, if all the people who knew the ins and outs of data collection in a given plant's innards are gone, sure the quality will suffer. The bad things are showing up just when the barn is almost empty! Score two black marks for those managers.

Let's Get Our Priorities Straight
With all the new networks and wireless communications innovations, we still need to get our sensors right and make sure they stay that way. These are tough challenges when resources are dwindling and people are evidently only paying lip service to major quality and real management issues. Just where does the buck stop? I think W. Edwards Demming had it right all along with his 14 points. There's no end to process and management challenges, but I'd put measurements in first or second pecking priority for dollar allocation, well ahead of management perks.

The root of dependable measurements is in the ability to select adequate, if not optimal, process sensors; proper installation and commissioning of those sensors; verification; sensible spares; predictive or preventive maintenance; and development and operation of a planned control program. If any of these factors is missing or not followed thoroughly, control suffers. With it goes quality, profits, competitiveness, jobs, and so on.

Insight on Manufacturing and Process Sensing
Measurement expertise is one of the topics I cover as host of Sensors' monthly Industrial Automation newsletter. If you'd like to keep in tune with the important goings-on particular to industrial automation, sign on for a free subscription. The next issue will feature a report on exciting advances that make cavity ring down spectroscopy (CRDS) truly useful for a variety of applications in industry.

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