Calibration's standard bearer
Rick Nelson, Executive Editor- March 1, 2004
HOUSTON, TX—Engineers are often depicted as taciturn loners having a lifelong focus on technology to the exclusion of all else. That's far from the case for Christopher Grachanen, whom Test & Measurement World's readers have selected as the Test Engineer of the Year . His present position as manager of Hewlett-Packard's Metrology Group here results from his taking advantage of serendipitous career and education opportunities, which have propelled him far from his rural Ohio hometown and original career ambitions.
Chris, a voluble and personable 45-year-old, has contributed to his employer and to the measurement community in many ways:
In 1998, he shepherded his lab—then part of Compaq—through the National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program (NVLAP) accreditation, making the Compaq lab one of the first to meet NVLAP's stringent requirements.
He has developed several software tools for metrologists—including tolerance and uncertainty calculators—and made them available free to the engineering community.
In 2002, he spearheaded an effort through the American Society of Quality (ASQ) to develop a program for certifying calibration technicians.
He has authored numerous conference papers for the National Conference of Standards Laboratories (NCSL) and other events, and he has authored many articles for Test & Measurement World and other publications.
He's an active member of industry organizations including the ASQ and NCSL International, serving as the NCSL Southwest regional coordinator.
As one of his many accomplishments, Chris Grachanen, manager of HP's Metrology Group in Houston, TX, spearheaded the Certified Calibration Technician program for the American Society of Quality.
When asked about his professional challenges, Grachanen recounted his work on his lab's accreditation for FCC EMC tests through NVLAP, which is administered by the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). The process took about a year as Grachanen and his colleagues documented the lab's calibration procedures and reduced measurement uncertainty; they justified the accreditation process to upper management by demonstrating that accreditation would cut one or two months out of the product-development process (Ref. 1).
Accreditation, Grachanen explains, is a two-part process. The first part involves laboratory procedures and documentation. The second part—the technical meat—is the uncertainty analysis, which requires calculation of errors such as those contributed by environmental and mismatch factors.
To help with this aspect, he says, was "one of the main reasons I developed the uncertainty calculator, freeware used throughout the world." He gets "faxes from almost every country in almost every language" thanking him for the program. About 10 sites, he said, offer it for download. (You can find the uncertainty and tolerance calculators on T&MW's site at www.tmworld.com/uncertainty.)
Grachanen counts spearheading the Certified Calibration Technician (CCT) program as his greatest professional accomplishment, adding that it represents the biggest risk he has taken as well: "Organizations have tried before, and have failed," to implement such a program, "so I was sticking my neck out." His success, he says, was due to a matter of timing.
ISO accreditation efforts were increasing the need for calibration professionals, and the Defense Department, a traditional source of metrologists, was scaling back its calibration training program. Therefore, industry was eager to have a way to identify the most able prospects. "I was in the right place at the right time," Grachanen says. "I was at an ASQ conference in Toledo, OH, and Phil Stein, an ASQ fellow, approached me with a proposal for developing a technician-certification program. ASQ is experienced with other certification programs, and was the ideal institute to help establish the program."
Stein reports that he approached Grachanen for help in an effort to maintain the firewall within ASQ that protects the integrity of the certification process. "As a private consultant," he says, "I make an income by teaching and writing training materials," and ASQ won't allow someone who develops a certification exam to teach the exam's subject matter. "Having put myself on that side of the wall, I could help to define technical content in initial meetings, and I could provide administrative and moral support" to the CCT effort. But, he adds, "I needed someone on the other side to manage the technical content as the project went forward." Grachanen, he says, has been that person, having successfully shepherded the CCT program through its first two exam cycles.
Grachanen complements his management duties with extensive lab work, including signal-integrity analysis.
For the first certification process, last spring, 71 technicians became certified. Last December, 109 individuals sat for the four-hour exam, with 69 of them passing it. Among Grachanen's staff, senior metrology technician Terry McGee passed the first test in June 2003. At that time, McGee says, "formal preparation for the exam was nonexistent," so he and his fellow test takers "went into the exam with our own personal experience, an armful of reference books, and our trusty calculators." Another senior metrology technician, Harold G. Foster, passed the second. Foster says he "studied off and on for about six weeks but not really seriously until the last week. It was quite a relief to receive the certification package and find out that I had been certified, after several weeks of Chris calling me a 'CCT wanna be.'" He adds, "I feel very fortunate to have worked for Chris and for all the things he has done for our lab."
In his current position, Grachanen serves many customers, primarily engineers at the Houston campus who use some sort of test equipment or who need measurement services, such as signal-integrity work. The lab also provides consulting in the measurement sciences and on the use of test equipment. The lab also supports five other Hewlett-Packard facilities. He notes that when Agilent Technologies split with HP, "Agilent took a lot of metrology and calibration expertise along with it, so HP utilizes third-party solutions, including Agilent. Since the [Compaq and HP] merger, we have been able to provide our services to classic HP sites."
Grachanen's most unusual project involved a study with career PhDs who were trying to find out the optimum mixture of fiber glass and resin in a PCB for supporting high-frequency data transmissions. He used transmission-line theory and a vector network analyzer for extracting S-parameter information to do that.
Grachanen's "typical" day at the lab is rarely typical, but certain routines are inviolable. He holds weekly productivity meetings with his nine-member staff to discuss problems, review the status of all equipment in the lab waiting to be calibrated, and to check the expected return times for instruments that have been sent to their vendors for calibration. "We support 5000 calibrations per year, approximately, but of course, there's a seasonal ebb and flow. Around the holidays we get dumped, because in January, people back from vacation want their instruments ready to go."
When asked whether his customers appreciate calibration or consider it a necessary evil, he says that ISO 9000 certification requirements are helping demonstrate calibration's necessity. "People are slowly but surely being educated to know that by not calibrating your equipment, you risk losing certification." The Houston facility, he says, was one of the first computer facilities to get campus-wide accreditation, a source of pride extending beyond the calibration lab.
Forests and sparks
Grachanen's tireless efforts in the metrology field haven't stemmed from a lifelong ambition to excel at engineering. In fact, Chris grew up wanting to be a forest ranger. A high school guidance councilor dissuaded him from that path, advising him that a career in forestry would require a four-year degree rather than the two-year degree Chris had anticipated and, further, that job prospects in forestry were bleak.
As an alternative, Chris enlisted in the US Air Force. A high score on an aptitude test allowed him to enroll in the Avionics Sensor System Specialist School at Lowery Air Force Base in Denver, CO, where he studied laser, infrared, and side-looking-radar imaging systems.
Grachanen had, in fact, an inkling that he might find electronics an interesting field. Despite his long-running interest in forestry, Grachanen had shown some curiosity about electronics as a child. "I had an electronic train," he said, "and I found that if I connected one terminal of [the train set's] transformer to a metal screen and the other terminal to a nail, I could make sparks. That's where the fascination started."
Also, a hero to Grachanen's Croatian-born father was Nikola Tesla, the Croatian-born Serbian-American inventor and researcher. Grachanen recalls a family vacation to the power-generating facilities at Niagara Falls, where Tesla's research into rotating magnetic fields was put to use transmitting the hydroelectric power generated there over long distances.
Indeed, Tesla has captured Grachanen's imagination. When asked what he considered the greatest invention of the 20th century, he responded without hesitation "the computer." He added, though, that if the question had included the 19th century as well, he would have answered, "Tesla's polyphase motor. I just finished a book on the life of Tesla. Westinghouse, Edison, Tesla—all these fabulous minds in one place. And what I get the biggest kick out of is that they knew each other. They all went to the same parties."
On completing avionics training at Lowery, Chris worked on drone reconnaissance systems at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, AZ. Subsequently, he worked on F-4 laser systems at Kadina Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan, until the F-4 program ended and the Air Force cut back operations at the lab where he worked.
He could have finished out his four-year enlistment "doing odd jobs around the flight line, changing tires and whatnot," he says. Instead, Grachanen volunteered for training at the Air Force's Precision Measurement Equipment Laboratory (PMEL) back at Lowery. His attendance at PMEL school extended his Air Force career from four years to six. It also introduced him to metrology, in which he would spend well over two decades, becoming a leading expert in the field. "PMEL was well worth staying for," he said.
Grachanen spent about a year in PMEL training at Lowery. With that training complete, he moved on to and finished his enlistment at Canon Air Force Base in Clovis, NM, where he worked on test equipment in support of the F-111D squadron.
Did he consider a lifelong career in the Air Force? "No. I loved the travel, contributing to the US Air Force mission, and the camaraderie, but that was about it."
Earning two degrees
On leaving the Air Force, he maintained a connection with the Defense Department, however, working as a civilian at Navy calibration labs, first at Adak, AK, and then in Bermuda. At both locations, he worked on test equipment for the P3 Squadron. Along the way, he picked up his first bachelor's degree, from University of Maryland extension-school programs that operated at the military bases where he was stationed, beginning his studies in Okinawa and completing them in Bermuda.
The Bermuda program didn't offer a BSEE degree, so he earned a bachelor's degree in technology and management. The Bermuda stint, where he observed the Navy's involvement in a NASA tracking station for the Space Shuttle, piqued his interest in space-flight programs.
After Bermuda, he took an assignment at the David Taylor Naval Research Center in Virginia, where he met his Nicaraguan-born wife, Patricia. He was quickly offered a position at what's now the NASA Glenn Research Center at Lewis Field in Cleveland, where he worked as an automatic test and evaluation engineer. That led to an assignment at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where he served as a contract electrical engineer supporting Space Shuttle test equipment calibration.
At the Kennedy Center, he felt the need to boost his technical capabilities, and he earned a second degree, this one a BSEE from Cook's Institute of Electronics Engineering, a Mississippi-based school that Grachanen describes as a pioneer in off-campus learning. He says his studies were extremely helpful because they filled in a lot of gaps, teaching him to solve partial differential equations, for example.
"But," he adds, "I've got to be real honest. My best learning ground was Kennedy NASA. Mike Maxwell, a deputy project manager and my supervisor, gave me a lot of freedom to go into any part of the metrology lab, to learn and to help out. I went into pressure, radiometry, vacuum, dimensional—any place I was needed, I helped out. It was an incredible learning experience for me, and the people were just very supportive. People took me under their wing, tutored me, and provided an incredible amount of reference material to take home and study. In my last year there, our dimensional engineer had left, so I took on duties of being the dimensional engineer as well."
He went to the Kennedy Center shortly after the Challenger disaster and stayed about two and a half years—through the third successful post-Challenger launch. He then moved on to the private sector—to Digital Equipment Corp. in Hudson, MA, where he was principle engineer in charge of DEC's metrology lab. He was there for a year and a half, including "a very dreary winter" that prompted him and Patricia to look to the south. That's when he joined Compaq here, before Compaq bought DEC and well before Compaq and Hewlett-Packard merged.
At the time, Compaq was expanding its corporate calibration lab, and Grachanen was hired as a standards engineer. Three years ago, he took over management of the metrology group. Not content with his two degrees, he is now nearing completion of an MBA, through a distance-learning program at Regis University in Denver, CO. Regarding the MBA, he says, "I've been on the technical end but not in the financial end. On taking over the lab, I felt the need to become more familiar with the accounting and financial portion. I have to design a budget for the lab every six months and need to speak the language of the people signing off on it."
"All the college classes I've ever taken have been at night school," he reported, adding, "Sometimes that makes Chris a very dull boy."
When asked how calibration requirements have changed over the years, Grachanen says, "Instrumentation itself has become a lot more sophisticated, having increased functionality and higher bandwidths, and of course everything now is so intensely software or firmware based."
Of the heavy emphasis on software, Grachanen says, "It's a double-edged sword. Some capabilities that you were able to provide correction factors for via pots or tweaks can now only be done via firmware, and if you don't have the software key or the software interfaces required to do the adjustment routines, you cannot do the adjustment. On scanning spectrophotometers, for example, we could provide a correction factor per wavelength. In some of the newer instruments, there's no way to do that. So [some calibration chores] have become a captured market for the OEMs."
When asked if there are any times when he's glad that the instrument makers maintain proprietary control, he says "I wish I always had the choice."
But instrument makers are doing many things right, he adds: "Enabling their customers to find reference materials, manuals, and parts on the Internet is where they've really made the greatest strides. Over the years, we have had to maintain such a huge paper library to cover so many instrumentation topics, ranging from acoustic to dimensional. Just being able to have reference material a click away—that's most extraordinary."
When asked what he wants to accomplish next, he says that first up is finishing his MBA and helping complete the publication—slated for this spring—of a metrology handbook he is coauthoring. In addition, he wants to get formal job descriptions for calibration professionals in the federal register to make it easier to track calibration professionals, in turn making it easier for organizations like the ASQ to support them. Not done with his own education, Grachanen also wants to pursue a PhD.
Finally, he said, "One thing that excites me is President Bush's announcement that we are going back to the moon. I would love to be a part of that."