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Dave K. Banerjea

Metrology

Calibration Apps Evolve for a Mobile Workforce

Data in the cloud for feet on the ground

Published: Monday, February 10, 2014 - 14:54

Like so many other business software applications, calibration management software has evolved from simple beginnings as a digital index-card system that reminded operators when their instrument and tool calibrations were due. During the past 25 years, these systems have matured and are more comprehensive, analytical, scalable, and secure, and have moved from traditional desktop software, to web-based, hosted, and mobile.

Desktop software

Desktop application software is traditional software that resides on a desktop or laptop computer. The software is stored on the local hard drive, and the data files are stored either locally or on a shared network drive; all of the processing takes place on the local computer. This type of system continues to make up the majority of commercially available calibration management systems and software in general.

Not much has fundamentally changed other than user interfaces have vastly improved, and the number of features has exponentially increased. Raw computing power, memory, and storage have reached new levels of performance and have helped to offset most of the issues caused by huge software feature sets, large multiuser databases, and cumbersome data analysis routines.

Calibration and maintenance management software converge

Maintenance management software allows facilities to track, analyze, optimize, and report on everything from assets, preventive maintenance schedules, and work orders to inventory, staff, purchasing, and much more at a single location or at multiple facilities around the world.

Some organizations are looking to combine their calibration and maintenance software applications into a single, unified system for easier management, improved compliance, and lower costs. Other organizations have maintenance departments that are responsible for both instrument calibrations and equipment and facilities maintenance; they are looking to bring together key operational processes and management systems. A combined calibration and maintenance system can save time, reduce training, combine key operational processes, reduce costs, and increase productivity in managing all of their enterprise assets (see figure 1). And, combining the two into one system can allow for single-track FDA validation. FDA-regulated companies such as pharmaceutical, medical device, and food manufacturers are required to validate their software applications prior to use, and it is much less complex and costly to validate one system than two.


Figure 1: FaciliWorks combines calibration and maintenance systems. Click for larger image.

Some enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, such as those from IBM, Oracle, SAP and others, already offer modules for both maintenance and calibration, though for many companies, they tend either to be overly complex and expensive or offer very basic features, with modules added as an afterthought. If your company requires a software solution that combines both maintenance and calibration management with or without single-track validation, look for a software solution that was developed solely with those functions in mind.

Web-based software

Web-based software is accessed and run through a web browser. It can be run over a public network, such as the Internet, or within a private network, such as the company intranet. Both the software application and data reside on the server and are presented through the operator's web browser.

Web-based calibration software allows calibrations to be performed in the field, and gauge and calibration data to be shared between facilities and a mobile workforce, outside calibration labs and customers. Real-time access to the most current data ensures time and cost efficiency throughout your operation. For company IT departments, web applications are appealing because it is much easier and less costly to update and maintain web applications on a few servers vs. distributing, installing, and patching software on hundreds or perhaps thousands of desktop computers.

Web applications are also easily scalable to allow for future growth; users and storage space can be quickly and seamlessly added as needed.

Although there are relatively few choices at present for web-based calibration management software, this will be changing as more IT departments and individuals see the merits of running their business applications through a web browser.

Hosted software

Hosted software, or software as a service (SaaS), or cloud computing is one of the application categories of web-based software. You access the software through a web browser, but both the software and the database reside on the service provider's servers. With SaaS, costs can be greatly reduced and capital expenditures converted to operational expenses.

The biggest benefit of doing SaaS vs. in-house is that with in-house, the client has to purchase a server, keep it up to date, make sure there's enough database storage space, regularly back up the database, and do their own software updates. With SaaS, the provider takes care of all of that. In addition, the cost of a single concurrent user license with SaaS is a small monthly fee. For a client that has the software on its own server, rather than a monthly fee the company buys a concurrent user license for a much higher dollar amount.

Much like an apartment complex, condominium, or hotel, "multi-tenancy" of servers and software applications enables sharing of resources and costs across a large group. This allows for centralization of infrastructure, lower operating costs, fewer IT staff. and reduced electricity costs.

When your calibration management software is hosted, the service provider is essentially your IT team. You don't have to be concerned about operating system requirements, hardware, drive space, or database systems, and you don't have to incur the cost associated with these things or spend time on setup and maintenance.

Because hosted software is accessed for a small monthly subscription fee, it is the perfect solution for new-facility startups, companies with limited IT budgets, organizations without in-house IT expertise, and even larger companies that must roll out to multiple locations. If you have a mobile workforce, cloud services are the perfect way to allow them to access the system from anywhere.

Reliability improves through the use of multiple redundant host sites, which makes SaaS suitable for business continuity and disaster recovery.

Scalability is achieved through dynamic on-demand provisioning of resources. Performance is monitored and can be adjusted to suit individuals' needs.

Security can be seen as improved due to centralization of data and increased security-focused resources. In many cases security is often as good as or better than under traditional systems, in part because SaaS providers are able to devote more resources to solving security issues that many customers can't afford on their own.

Sustainability comes about through improved resource utilization, more efficient systems, and lower carbon footprints. Traditional computers and associated infrastructure are major consumers of energy.

Of course, there are some drawbacks of SaaS. Some feel that SaaS will force people to buy into locked, proprietary systems that will cost more and more over time. Examples include cable TV, telecom services, and electric utilities that have virtual monopolies with few consumer choices.

Concerns exist about loss of control of certain sensitive data, especially in the military, government agencies, healthcare, and FDA-regulated firms. Providers typically log user access activities, but accessing the audit logs themselves can be difficult or impossible. In addition, the complexity of security is greatly increased when data are distributed over a wider area or number of computers.

Mobile apps and more

Not so long ago, the typical computer user was tied to a desk and connected to data by cords and cables. With a handheld personal digital assistant (PDA), for instance, some major drawbacks were the inability to download data and ensuring that all the data from the PDA was synchronized with the host system.

Now, wireless technology—including 4G cellular data networks and widespread Wi-Fi—has allowed for anytime, anywhere mobile software applications for use on laptops, tablets, and smart phones. Some calibration management systems now offer mobile software modules that allow for truly mobile, real-time calibration data collection and analysis.

Typically, there are significant differences between web-based software and mobile apps. A web-based version is the full version of the software, and though it can be accessed from any web browser on any device, it may not be optimized for that screen size, which means it would require zooming, scrolling, etc. Mobile apps that are designed specifically for tablets and smart phones usually offer a pared-down, simplified version of the software. For instance, a mobile calibration app may offer access to gauge, calibration, and procedure records as well as reporting features because it makes sense to access these features in the field. However, it may not provide access to staff records, MSA studies, or audit logs.

Lightweight technologies such as gadgets, tiles, and widgets have become popular on websites such as Google and Yahoo. Enterprises can use them to build quick tactical solutions and then slowly migrate to more strategic options. Expect to see more application developers offer auxiliary gadgets for their applications that provide at-a-glance status on things such as calibration activities, service requests, work orders, staffing, and inventory.

Localization

Localization of software is the process of translating the software to another language and adding any appropriate region-specific features or characteristics. Many software firms are recognizing the importance of localizing applications and content across cultural and geographic boundaries. Although the technology has been around for a while to allow for this, the globalization of many enterprises is driving software localization forward. Companies are recognizing that both employees and partners operate more effectively in their native language rather than using English as a second language (see figure 2). For others it is the potential to sell outside of saturated English-language markets. Many software firms will lose market share in their assumption that application interfaces, user manuals, and technical support need only support English.


Figure 1: Localization helps partners operate more effectively using their native language. Click for larger image.

Where to go from here

Calibration management software has continued to evolve and change with the rest of the software industry. Although there's no need to discard your desktop software anytime soon, it's good to be aware of choices that are available now and what the future may hold. As more applications move to the cloud, software and content will continue to expand to the farthest reaches of the globe.

Dave K. Banerjea is president and CEO of CyberMetrics Corp., a Quality Digest Daily content partner.

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About The Author

Dave K. Banerjea’s picture

Dave K. Banerjea

Dave K. Banerjea is president and CEO of CyberMetrics Corp., developer and worldwide distributor of GAGEtrak calibration management, FaciliWorks CMMS maintenance management, and SUPPLIERtrak supplier quality assurance software.