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Calibration Tools – A Measure of Success

Metrology is defined as the scientific study of measurement, not to be confused with the next closest word, meteorology, which is defined as the scientific study of weather, or in my book, “randomly guessing at weather conditions and only being correct a small percentage of the time.” Ok, seriously, I’m just kidding around.  I know meteorologists have one of the hardest jobs out there, and science certainly didn’t take into account the wacky weather in our neck of the woods just below the Great Lakes.

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Now back to business. “Engine Builder” is not in the dictionary, but if it was, my vote would be for “one who understands metrology.” It’s all about precision and accuracy, and you rely on your tools and equipment to attain the critical accuracy you need for the quality your customers depend on. There is no room for error. It has to be right.

So, we enter the topic of calibration and repair. There’s a laundry-list of tools we use day in and day out; hard gauges like a feeler gauge or a straight edge, hand tools like a micrometer or a caliper, equipment such as a torque wrench, pressure gauge, scale or spring tester, and even electronics such as multimeters, tachometers or decibel meters. All of them, no matter how simple, will eventually require some type of calibration or repair.

Always a stickler for proper tool and equipment maintenance, and looking for an industry viewpoint on the subject, I made a call to Steve Toll, vice president of sales for Fox Valley Metrology in Oshkosh, WI. Fox Valley Metrology is a full-service metrology lab that provides calibration and repair services for all types of tools and equipment – if it measures something, they can service it, and they offer new equipment sales as well.

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Founded in 1996, their dedication to the science has seen them grow monumentally, but they have not lost focus on any segment of the industry, and independent machine shops played as much an integral part in their success as any other. “Up here in Northern Wisconsin, you can’t go through a small town without two or three independent machine shops,” Toll says. “That’s really where we got our start and they’re a very substantial quantity of the customers in our business.”

If you look at the tools and equipment you use and consider them from a business standpoint, a couple things stand out. One, they are necessary for quality and accuracy of your work and two, they are an expense, both in purchasing and proper maintenance. It’s easy to overlook maintenance and calibration, but in order to produce the quality that keeps you on top as an engine builder, the maintenance cannot be overlooked.





Mistakes that result from tool-related issues can cost you more than just the value of a repair; it’s also the time to do the rework, the planning around it and the potential damage to your reputation.

There is a cost of poor quality, and according to Toll, if you are using a tool every day throughout the year and can put a value on the production of that tool, the cost of calibration is minimal when compared to the risk and potential loss that could result from using a tool that is not reading properly. “Calibration is a necessary expense,” Toll says. “It’s not something that’s going to wake you up in the morning and get you really excited to talk about, but at the end of the day, it’s important to understand the value of it.” Mistakes that result from tool-related issues can cost you more than just the value of a repair; it’s also the time to do the rework, the planning around it and the potential damage to your reputation.

On top of that, as we head into the future, the trend of the automotive industry indicates that the U.S. is no longer going to compete on cost or speed. It has to compete on quality. The trend in engine manufacturing has been shrinking tolerances, and that is not going to go backwards. “Things are only going to get more and more stringent over the years,” Toll says. This is yet another reason that strict calibration schedules will ultimately reflect the success of a machine shop.

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Interested in some of the common problems seen with our everyday tools, I asked about it. “Torque wrenches are a big one – right,” stated Toll. He explained that the ball bearings wear out easily, causing immediate problems with calibration. Routine calibration is needed more often in the automotive world than in other industries such as the medical device field for example, due to the more difficult atmosphere that they are exposed to.

Another common problem seen is the misuse of tools, an example being a caliper that is used as a wrench. Evidently, it’s been done many times; the wrench is in a toolbox across the shop and the caliper is right there in your hand – it’s just a quick shortcut to save time! The things you learn when you talk to an industry expert are always enlightening. I admit on using things for hammers that weren’t hammers, but not my precision measuring equipment!

So, what do the big manufacturers do; what’s their commitment to calibration? Over the years, Fox Valley Metrology has integrated themselves into multiple facets of manufacturing, including the airline industry, auto industry, pharmaceuticals and biomedical devices just to name a few. They have evolved business practices to support the volume of calibrations required in these industries. 

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In addition to performing repair and calibration in-house, Fox Valley also offers on-site services. Even when turn-around time is only a few days for calibration or repair, it’s not realistic to send out all of your equipment due to not only the cost of shipping, but also the down time for your business. For that reason, on-site services are the way most of the business is handled for larger businesses and manufacturing facilities.

Photo of a 5-axis measurement probe measuring the cylinder block.
“95% of our customer base operates on an annual calibration cycle… it’s pretty safe to say that things aren’t going to fall out of tolerance over the span of 12 months.”

Many industries are governed by strict policies regarding the certification of tools and equipment, and even those that are not are trending towards routine calibration and repair. “I would say 95% of our customer base operates on an annual calibration cycle. Equipment gets calibrated once per year,” he says. “That’s nothing more than an easy-to-manage arbitrary line in the sand. There’s no real analysis going into that decision, but it’s pretty safe to say that things aren’t going to fall out of tolerance over the span of 12 months. There are customers that shorten that cycle based on how frequently the equipment’s being used and there are customers that expand that cycle out based on those same criteria, but for the most part, our customer is going to have their equipment set to an annual basis.”

Toll also explained that in some cases it is difficult, as companies grow, to keep all of their equipment on the same timeframe. For example, if they have all of their tools calibrated on an annual basis, but they buy 10 tools a month throughout the year, all those tools going to be on a different calibration schedule. In many of those cases, the customer will lump them all together. When their scheduled annual calibration comes, they’ll just have them all done, even if something is not due, that way they keep everything on the same cycle.

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Some companies also schedule calibrations quarterly or twice a year, and another popular and busy time for metrology companies is during holidays when long shut-down periods are common. “Holidays are a pretty busy time of year for calibration for us, because they say ‘you know what, the plant is shut down, let’s get the calibration guys in here and get things rolling,’” he says.

There’s another topic when it comes to calibration that extends beyond the normal mechanical type of tools and equipment used for measuring, and that’s flow equipment. Just like all equipment that measures, this should also receive periodic calibration.

“Flow would be probably the biggest area that we ourselves truly don’t have the capability for,” he says. “An interesting dynamic when it comes to the calibration world, is that you have two types of labs. You’ve got the type of labs that do a little bit of everything and then you’ve got the type of labs that pick one specific thing to specialize in.”

Flow equipment calibration is a good example of the type of equipment that would be handled by a specialty lab. “Without getting into all the semantics, when you get into calibration of flow, you need a different system for air, gas, water, coolant and oil, for all of those different systems,” Toll says. “And then you need to have different systems for the ranges within that. A lot of labs like myself don’t really get into flow, but there are quite a few flow calibration labs out there that specialize in it.”

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How do you measure success? Be it a happy customer, dyno numbers you were looking for or finally getting that hot rod on the road, they all count, but it’s the knowledge of ultimate accuracy and precision that comes from the tools you use that gives you the confidence for a measured guarantee of success. EB

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