Military-Grade Advice

Pointers for calibration labs from an Air Force perspective

by Craig A. Niemann

In the spring of 1990, I was stationed at Lowry Air Force Base (AFB) in Colorado. It was there that I learned a career in metrology did not mean I was going to be a weatherman, but rather a precision measurement equipment laboratories (PMEL) technician.

Around the same time, the latest edition of the Aerospace Guidance and Metrology Center newsletter was mailed from Newark AFB to all 175 U.S. Air Force (USAF) calibration laboratories.

In this edition, there were tips on making the 1295 Attenuation Measurement Receiver more reliable by bolting it to a sheet of plywood and mounting it to an oscilloscope cart. Another article detailed how cleaning the vacuum tubes on the 5205A Precision Power Amplifier could correct excessive warm-up time.

Most of the articles in this edition are not particularly relevant today, but one stood out.

Chief Master Sergeant Lee Ginn, the new chief of the laboratory certification office at the time, offered a few words of advice to the managers of the USAF calibration laboratories on how to set themselves up for success—advice still applicable today to everyone in the metrology field.

Smaller but better

"As we look at reductions in manpower and money, we are tasked to maintain metrology integrity as technical complexity increases."

Although Ginn wrote these words more than 20 years ago, they still ring true today.

Budget and personnel cuts in the military and civilian sectors have become the standard. Despite these reductions, there are calibration technicians around the world who continue to perform critical measurements to ensure traceability to international standards. They know that a lack of integrity anywhere in the chain can have devastating consequences.

During my last assignment at Osan Air Base in Korea, I witnessed innovations throughout the aircraft maintenance community that enabled U.S. airmen to use aging equipment to maintain aging aircraft and meet mission requirements. Unfortunately, there were also instances of people taking shortcuts that put aircraft and lives in danger.

In an operational environment, there are production pressures from all levels, but Air Force commanders entrust their PMEL technicians to maintain the integrity of the traceability chain. While innovations maximize efficiency and forge the future, shortcuts threaten safety and progress.

Customers depend on sound measurements to ensure products function as they are intended, so shortcuts that break the chain can’t be tolerated.

Keeping training on track

"Training, not a paper program."

The calibration career field and the entire USAF has gotten significantly smaller since Ginn authored these words, so it is even more critical to provide solid training. Many calibration laboratories and metrology departments have a book that outlines a training program, but plans and directives do not equate to trained technicians.

There is no substitute for personal interaction with a trainer who takes the time to go over the in-depth theory of a measurement and the idiosyncrasies normally encountered, and who then passes on knowledge gained by years of experience. This type of training takes the most amount of time, but it is an investment in the future.

Normally, the first-line supervisor provides most of the training, so leaders need to ensure they are allowed the time to answer questions from the newest calibration technicians. In other words, take the time to train them right the first time.

Top notch

"Quality starts at the top. Emphasize it. Do it. Instill it in your lab and make your customers aware of their part."

There is no substitute for good leadership. People will live up to the organization’s expectations, and that starts with a leader who establishes the tone that quality comes first.

That’s done by setting high standards, expecting everyone to measure up and establishing a culture of accountability for those who do not.

Leaders also hold themselves accountable by taking responsibility. They do not project the blame for their failures on outside organizations.

Good leadership in the laboratory bleeds over to the customer. In the most successful organizations, laboratory leadership takes an active interest in training customers to emphasize the importance of calibration. As with training, setting up your customers for success at the beginning prevents problems later.

The more things change …

Since 1990, the USAF calibration career field has seen significant changes. The number of calibration laboratories decreased from 175 to just 74. The quarterly newsletter isn’t mailed anymore, but instead is posted on the internet for everyone to download, a concept most of us couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago.

Despite all the changes and advances in technology, the importance of a calibration laboratory successfully performing traceable measurements has not changed. If anything, it is even more important today as technology gets more precise.

But that doesn’t mean we should forget to look back. Regardless of how much time has passed, the cornerstones for running a successful calibration program haven’t changed.

Craig A. Niemann is a Chief Master Sergeant with the U.S. Air Force stationed in Ohio, and has served as a quality process evaluator and quality program manager. He received his associate’s degree from the Community College of the Air Force in 1997. Niemann is a senior member of ASQ and a certified calibration technician.

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