Book:The Laboratories of Our Lives: Labs, Labs Everywhere!/Labs by industry: Part 1/Calibration and standards

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3.3 Calibration and standards

Calibrate scale.JPG

Laboratories in the calibration and standards industry are focused on testing the accuracy of measurement devices and reference standards, correcting inaccuracies in measurement devices, and developing and using standards/reference equipment and devices for calibration testing. Broadly speaking, these laboratories will appear as stand-alone, accredited laboratories performing calibrations for customers on request; as in-house calibration laboratories found in production facilities testing their equipment against working standards tested by the third-party accredited lab; or in a university setting, which may or may not offer accredited third-party calibration services.[1] These labs are found in the private, government, and academic sectors and provide many different services, including (but not limited to):

  • calibration of working or reference standards used in other calibration activities[2]
  • calibration of mechanical, electronic, and other instruments and components, in-lab or onsite[1][2]
  • maintenance and repair of instruments
  • documentation of tests for regulatory or audit purposes
  • enact measurement assurance programs[3]

But how do calibration and standards laboratories intersect the average person's life on a daily basis?

Let's turn to an introductory section of Jay L. Bucher's The Quality Calibration Handbook to help visualize an answer to this question[4]:

Without calibration, or by using incorrect calibrations, all of us pay more at the gas station, for food weighed incorrectly at the checkout counter, and for speeding tickets. Incorrect amounts of ingredients in your prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) drugs can cost more, or even cause illness or death. Because of poor or incorrect calibration, killers and rapists are either not convicted or are released on bad evidence. Crime labs cannot identify the remains of victims or wrongly identify victims in the case of mass graves. Airliners fly into mountaintops and off the ends of runways because they don't know their altitude and/or speed. Babies are not correctly weighed at birth. The amount of drugs confiscated in a raid determines whether the offense is a misdemeanor or a felony; which weight is correct? ... Satellites and everything they affect would be a thing of the past, as would be the manufacturing and production of almost everything made in the world today.

3.3.1 Client types

Private - As previously mentioned, private industry labs are largely either in a production facility or act as a third-party contract laboratory for manufacturers who are unable or unwilling to invest in their own private calibration laboratory. Aside from making the calibration (comparison), these labs may also provide maintenance and repair services, as well as compliance documentation.

Examples include:

Government - These government-affiliated labs are often at or near the top of the chain of calibration labs, working with others to link their equipment to national or even international measurement standards. They can be found not only at the federal level but also at the state/territory level and may even exist as a public-private partnership.

Examples include:

Academic - Like agriculture labs, calibration and standards laboratories associated with higher education institutions are often of a hybrid client type and function. They may make their laboratory multi-purpose for research, teaching, and professional calibration services, processing equipment and instruments from external third-party clients, acting in some ways like a private analytical lab would. Some university labs may have strong ties (through contracts or received funding) with commercial and government entities, leveraging university research and knowledge to those external parties to further fund university laboratory teaching efforts.

Examples include:

3.3.2 Functions

What are the most common functions? calibration, QA/QC, research/design, and teaching

What materials, technologies, and/or aspects are being calibrated, researched, and quality controlled? electronics, measurement tools, mechanical devices, and primary standards; chronometric, dimensional, hardness, photometric, sensitivity, thermal, volumetric

What sciences are being applied in these labs? applied statistics, engineering, metrology, physics

What are some examples of test types and equipment?

Common test types include:

Absorption, Acceleration, Acoustical, Compression, Dimensional, Grain and particle size, Humidity, Mass, Optical, Oxidation reduction potential, pH, Photometric, Power quality, Pressure, Proficiency, Reflectance, Resistance - capacitance - inductance, Temperature, Tensile, Torque, Validation, Velocity and flow

Industry-related lab equipment may include:

benchtop precision meters, calibration mass sets, dry block probe calibrators, heated calibration bath, infrared calibrator, milliamp loop calibrator, multifunction calibrator, pressure calibrator, stage micrometer, standard resistors, standard capacitors, standard inductors, surface probe tester, thermocouple calibrator, torque reference transducer

What else, if anything, is unique about the labs in the calibration industry?

Calibration laboratories, whether located in a manufacturing facility or as a stand-alone third-party facility, have special placement and environmental requirements that must be met to ensure optimal operations. This includes maintaining a strict range of relative humidity; maintaining temperature stability and uniformity; and managing air flow, vibration, and dust issues properly.[2] Many calibration labs found in higher education facilities seem to be multipurpose, capable of handling not only teaching and research functions but also able to provide independent calibration services to external customers, public and private. In the U.S. at least, the government is engaged in several public-private ventures involving calibration and standards laboratories.

3.3.3 Informatics in the calibration industry

Like other laboratories, calibration labs are using informatics to improve their operations. Standards such as ISO/IEC 17025 (technical competence and management system requirements) and ANSI/NCSL Z540.3 (metrology and calibration accreditation requirements) are vital to the end user having their equipment calibrated, as they better guarantee calculations of "probability of false acceptance" and issuance of calibration certificates, which today are largely performed via informatics software. Those same systems can keep track of client ID, certificate number, equipment ID, calibration due date, values assessed, and test results for not only the certificate issuance but also further data-driven insights about calibration effectiveness and frequency.[5][6][7]

3.3.4 LIMSwiki resources and further reading

LIMSwiki resources

Further reading


  1. 1.0 1.1 Czichos, H.; Saito, T.; Smith, L.E., ed. (2011). "Chapter 3: Quality in Measurement and Testing". Springer Handbook of Metrology and Testing. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 45–49. ISBN 9783642166419. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Bucher, J.L. (2007). "Chapter 12: Calibration Environment". The Quality Calibration Handbook: Developing and Managing a Calibration Program. ASQ Quality Press. pp. 113–116. ISBN 9780873897044. 
  3. "Policies". National Institute of Standards and Technology. 17 February 2022. Retrieved 28 June 2022. 
  4. Bucher, J.L. (2007). "Chapter 1: Preventing the Next Great Train Wreck". The Quality Calibration Handbook: Developing and Managing a Calibration Program. ASQ Quality Press. pp. 3–8. ISBN 9780873897044. 
  5. "Recommended practices for calibration laboratories". National Research Council Canada. Government of Canada. 27 March 2019. Retrieved 28 June 2022. 
  6. "Z540.3 Calibration Service Explained" (PDF). Keysight Technologies. 8 August 2019. Retrieved 28 June 2022. 
  7. "Keysight Technologies Certificate of Calibration Enhanced" (PDF). Keysight Technologies. 2 August 2014. Retrieved 28 June 2022.