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Should I have my instrument calibrated

and, if so, how often? (FAQ - Force)


What is calibration?
Calibration is the process of comparing a measuring instrument with a measurement standard to establish the
relationship between the values indicated by the instrument and those of the standard. Certificates showing the
results from such a calibration commonly list the range of force values generated by a standard machine, the
corresponding output values indicated by the instrument being calibrated, and a calibration equation relating
the two sets of figures.
To provide confidence in the accuracy otf calibration results the measurements must have demonstrable
traceability. This means that all results associated with a calibration - including those relating to the calibration
of the measurement standard used - must be traceable back to standards held at a national measurement
institute, such as NPL, through an unbroken chain of comparisons and where each link has stated measurement
uncertainties. In addition, it is important that appropriate equipment and procedures are used in the calibration
process, and that they are used by trained and authorised personnel operating in an adequate experimental
environment. Essentially, to be able to demonstrate formal traceability of measurements, the calibrations
should either be undertaken by a national metrology institute such as NPL and/or a laboratory that has been
independently third-party accredited by, for example, the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS).
Instruments usually need to be calibrated, whether they are simple devices with modest performance or state-
of-the-art systems, as it is only by this process that their force measuring properties can be determined. This
often means that the whole system needs to be calibrated and not just the sensor itself, as any associated
electronics are just as likely to change characteristics as the sensor.
How frequently should an instrument be calibrated?
The frequency with which calibrations should be carried out is an important, if sometimes difficult, question;
there are two main considerations. Firstly, all measuring devices - whether they are simple, 'fundamental', or
sophisticated - change characteristics with time; the issue is how much do they change? New devices should be
calibrated relatively frequently in order to establish their reproducibility - essentially their metrological stability
or the change in their measuring ability between calibrations. Initial estimates of reproducibility are sometimes
made using type-test data from earlier calibration results of similar instruments but the resultant uncertainty of
measurement has to be cautiously higher, until real data is available.
Secondly, the required uncertainty of measurement should be assessed. If the instrument's reproducibility is
shown, by successive calibrations, to be substantially better than the uncertainty required then the interval
between calibrations can be extended - perhaps even up to five years or so (if requirements in Standards don't
specify otherwise), but at the other extreme - where the instrument's reproducibility approaches the uncertainty
needed - the calibration intervals should be much shorter, perhaps on a weekly or even daily basis.
Do all measuring instruments need to be calibrated?
There are situations where an instrument need not be calibrated, for example where its readings are 'for
information only' and their accuracy has little or no impact on the process or service being provided. But in
these circumstances it is important to be careful that false assumptions are not accidentally built into the hand-
waving generalisations that sometimes accompany arguments for not calibrating an instrument. Non-calibrated
instruments can appear to be working properly whilst being in error by large margins and manufacturers'
specification sheets should certainly not be taken as a reliable guide.
The cost of a calibration is sometimes the main factor in deciding not to have a device calibrated and clearly it
is important to take economic issues into account. But there can be hidden costs and significant risks taken
through not calibrating an instrument - and hence not controlling or understanding a process adequately - that
ought to tip the balance. For example, using a calibrated instrument may reduce the number of end-products
rejected because they are outside acceptable tolerances. It may also be that more products can be sold through
having reduced and more competitive tolerances, better reliability, or that a wider customer base, including
quality-controlled markets, can be better accessed. An assessment of risks can help the decision; for example it
might be appropriate to calibrate even the most stable force measuring system more than once every five years
if by not doing so you are potentially making yourself liable for large sums of money. There are, of course,
many health and safety, legal, and regulatory issues that should be considered too.
Level of and routes to calibration
Instrument calibrations should be made at an appropriate level. It is not always necessary or desirable to have
an instrument calibrated against a national measurement standard but the importance of being able to
demonstrate traceability and understanding the degree of measurement uncertainty needed in a particular
application should always be taken into account. There are several routes to obtaining a calibration but only
two are recommended: through a UKAS-accredited laboratory (or equivalent accreditation scheme outside the
UK) or directly from a national measurement institute such as NPL. There are non-accredited calibration
services available but these are not recommended because they cannot give the degree of confidence provided
by a third-party accredited laboratory. Of course you might decide to undertake the calibrations in-house
yourself but again the confidence that can be placed on the results will be much greater if your system is
formally third-party accredited. Whichever route you take it is well worth reviewing your expectation of an
instrument before requesting a calibration - just to ensure that the calibration is likely to meet your needs.
Summary

The only way to ensure that you know and continue to know the measurement uncertainties associated
with a measuring instrument is to have it calibrated regularly (not necessarily frequently) by an
organisation that is formally third-party accredited to do so.
The frequency of calibration depends on the reproducibility of the instrument in question (from its
calibration history) and how this relates to the overall uncertainty required in the measurements you need
to make with it.
Purchasers of calibration services should review their expectation of an instrument before requesting a
calibration - to ensure that the calibration is likely to meet their needs.
If you don't have an instrument calibrated (or it is calibrated by a non-accredited calibration provider)
there can be very substantial hidden costs and risks. Provided it is acted upon, the information contained
in a certificate of calibration is usually worth considerably more than the cost of the calibration.
Last Updated: 1 Dec 2010
Created: 1 Dec 2010