Accreditation: The SMaRT way forward in testing and academia

Specialising in accredited mechanical testing, SMaRT is building on its links with research, academia and industry from its Swansea base

Swansea Materials Research & Testing Ltd (SMaRT Ltd) is a specialised supplier of mechanical test data to industry and academia. It was established in 2009 as a spin out company by Swansea University, and SMaRT’s three staff initially focused on the aerospace industry in a small stand-alone facility outside Port Talbot. Today, the company has grown to encompass blue chip companies from the aerospace, power generation and petrochemicals industries, served by 12 staff from a new purpose-built facility at the heart of the new Swansea University Bay Campus, with a turnover of around £1m a year. It also has strong links with many other leading UK universities.

The concept behind SMaRT is to co-locate a commercial test house, specialising in bespoke testing of metallic and ceramic materials, alongside the Swansea University Institute of Structural Materials, who specialise in developing the understanding of mechanical behaviour. The aim is to achieve a holistic approach to the generation and interpretation of mechanical data.

The model is unique in the UK and is mutually beneficial for both parties, as Colin Small, Chief Operating Officer at SMaRT explains:

“The commercial test house draws on the co-located academic expertise to develop and mature novel test methods and techniques while also providing the routine, robust testing required by our customers. At the same time, the academic team can carry out research supported by mechanical testing in an accredited environment. This makes the research data very valuable to their sponsors as it has a certified history and pedigree. In addition, there is also a route to transfer new test techniques directly from the research environment into the commercial setting, which benefits the sponsor as it reduces the cost and the time it takes to do this.”

In addition to holding approval certificates from its main customers, SMaRT has been accredited against ISO17025:2005 General requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories, which offers a range of tensile, creep, fatigue and crack propagation testing methods. Outlining the importance of accreditation, Colin said:

“Customers regard ISO 17025 accreditation as a critical factor in placing mechanical testing – without it they would not use SMaRT. It assures them that the work is being carried out by competent staff to recognised standards and that there is an effective quality and management system to manage, report and deliver the results in a timely and cost effective manner. Accreditation also generates confidence in the customer that the novel, bespoke forms of testing we design and perform are subject to the same overall quality system.”

Accreditation is an absolute must

In addition to being ‘business critical’, the recognition and reputation offered by accreditation has been invaluable in developing both new customers and testing areas.

“Our major customers demand that we hold the appropriate ISO 17025 accreditation, so without it, we would not gain their business,” Colin explains. “It has opened doors to new customers, who have found us while searching for test facilities that can perform a test type to accredited standards. Similarly, it has opened new opportunities with existing customers, since it is not unusual to find that there are other, more bespoke or unusual tests, that they are interested in and that SMaRT is uniquely placed to help design. Our accreditation means that there is a recognised system for development of novel test types from initial idea through to commercial implementation which again gives the customer confidence that what is required can be controlled and delivered.”

ISO17025 accreditation is a continuous and robust assessment process that operates over a four-year cycle. The process starts with the existing company quality and management system. Once this is in place the accreditation process can start by approaching the accreditation body, in the UK this is the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS). After a pre-assessment visit, to help get the quality and management systems into the right form, the process starts with an initial accreditation visit to review the company systems against the ISO17025 standard.

Out of this visit comes a series of actions and recommendations which need to be closed in an agreed timescale before accreditation is awarded. From start to finish these initial steps took approximately 18 months. Once accreditation is awarded, an annual surveillance visit is carried out by the accrediting body. Whilst this may appear to be an onerous or time consuming task, the long-term benefits to the company go beyond an increased customer base, to include how the company operates on a day to day basis.

Applying lessons more widely

Colin says: “The benefits of going through the accreditation process can take time to materialise, as there is a preconception of it being a challenge; accreditor versus the company. However, this is only because you are so busy ‘getting ready’, drafting the necessary documents and systems, that you do not have enough time to stand back and absorb the lessons the process is teaching you. Once you do recognise this need and review the outcome of the initial accreditation/follow up surveillance visits, you see how the lessons can be applied in their widest context and start making changes based on those outcomes.”

Amongst the benefits SMaRT derived from the accreditation process, the most important relate to improved efficiency and quality, as Colin explains. “Accreditation forces you to look at your systems and practices, ensuring that they are streamlined and fit for purpose. It also has a positive impact on the quality of your outputs as the better control means that you produce a higher quality output in a timelier manner.”

Highlighting the important role that assessors can play in the accreditation process, Colin concludes: “The assessors have a wealth of experience and it pays to listen carefully to what they are saying during their visits. Whilst they are not allowed to give you direct advice, what they say can often point to things you had not thought of that actually needed improving.”

Colin Small

Chief Operating Officer

Swansea Materials Research & Testing Ltd (SMaRT)

Tel: +44 (0)1792 602277

c.small@swansea.ac.uk

Please note: this is a commercial profile

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