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The Importance of Measurements--and Measurement Expertise

February 1, 2006 By: G. Raymond Peacock, Temperatures.com Inc.

This Month in Industrial Automation

"Without measurement there is no control," says the Particle Measuring Systems website. That's for sure. We all know—or should know—that sound measurement makes or breaks process control.

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. Before we explore that, though, let's look at the positive momentum that's building—and at how you can make your own particular needs known.

Exacting and Reliable Measurement

Recent developments in measurement technologies and practices—and user needs—are being discussed at several topical meetings this year, including Measurement Sciences Conference (February 27-March 3 in Anaheim), and 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.

If your organization has an unmet measurement need, hurry your comments, suggestions, or questions to usms@nist.gov; Dennis Swyt (301-975-3463, dennis.swyt@nist.gov) is project director. Or, contact one of the several professional and standards societies such as ASTM that are helping pull responses together. ASTM is asking for complete responses from its members by the end of March. NIST will issue the final report in late June.

Opposing Forces

In contrast to this progress, we seem to be suffering problems in process automation, not the least of which involves measurement quality assurance. 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.

Now Here's Something I'd Like

Speaking of innovations, one of the latest innovations in sensors is the first Bluetooth-capable sensor I've seen. The new Cyclops C100 portable IR thermometer from Land Instruments has both RS-232 wired and Bluetooth outputs. Since this device is used in many plant data-collection and process-monitoring applications with an accompanying datalogger, it seems likely that Land will soon be selling either its own or someone else's Bluetooth-enabled portable datalogger system. There are a few on the market already, such as National Instruments' LabVIEW PDA Module. Then there are RS-232 Bluetooth adapters available from several sources; examples are Grid Connect's BluePort and Eagle Tech's BL-510 Bluetooth-enabled IR thermometer.

Hmmm?I wonder whether this Bluetooth-enabled thermometer can interface with my cell phone and let me "call in" temperature data to a web database in real time and let me forget about lugging a datalogger around the plant.

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