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In measurement technology and metrology, calibration is the comparison of measurement values delivered by a device under test with those of a calibration standard of known accuracy.[1] Such a standard could be another measurement device of known accuracy, a device generating the quantity to be measured such as a voltage, a sound tone, or a physical artifact, such as a meter ruler.

The outcome of the comparison can result in one of the following:

  • no significant error being noted on the device under test
  • a significant error being noted but no adjustment made
  • an adjustment made to correct the error to an acceptable level

Strictly speaking, the term "calibration" means just the act of comparison and does not include any subsequent adjustment.

The calibration standard is normally traceable to a national / international standard held by a national metrology body.

BIPM Definition

The formal definition of calibration by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) is the following: "Operation that, under specified conditions, in a first step, establishes a relation between the quantity values with measurement uncertainties provided by measurement standards and corresponding indications with associated measurement uncertainties (of the calibrated instrument or secondary standard) and, in a second step, uses this information to establish a relation for obtaining a measurement result from an indication."[2]

This definition states that the calibration process is purely a comparison, but introduces the concept of measurement uncertainty in relating the accuracies of the device under test and the standard.

Modern calibration processes

The increasing need for known accuracy and uncertainty and the need to have consistent and comparable standards internationally has led to the establishment of national laboratories. In many countries a National Metrology Institute (NMI) will exist which will maintain primary standards of measurement (the main SI units plus a number of derived units) which will be used to provide traceability to customer's instruments by calibration.

The NMI supports the metrological infrastructure in that country (and often others) by establishing an unbroken chain, from the top level of standards to an instrument used for measurement. Examples of National Metrology Institutes are NPL in the UK, NIST in the United States, PTB in Germany and many others. Since the Mutual Recognition Agreement was signed it is now straightforward to take traceability from any participating NMI and it is no longer necessary for a company to obtain traceability for measurements from the NMI of the country in which it is situated, such as the National Physical Laboratory in the UK.

The outcome of the comparison can result in one of the following:

Strictly speaking, the term "calibration" means just the act of comparison and does not include any subsequent adjustment.

The calibration standard is normally traceable to a national / international standard held by a national metrology body.