Q-Plus Labs – How Far Measurement Has Come

By January 5, 2020Articles

Q-PLUS Labs sets the bar in dimensional metrology. They measure the bar, provide a full report on the bar, and raise the bar. Mike Knicker, president and founder of Q-PLUS Labs has spent 40 years in metrology and has built his reputation on unparalleled service and commitment to quality . Any company that requires extreme discretion on very technical items knows Q-PLUS Labs is the place to go. Fortune 500 companies, large manufacturers, automotive, medical, aerospace, there is not an industry that they are not involved in. Customers like JPL, Johnson & Johnson, US Army, 3M, Fender Guitars, Nike, St. Jude Medical, and Boeing, all place their trust in Q-PLUS Labs’ team of specialists.

The Cyber Technologies chromatic confocal 3D nano-scanner is used to obtain part geometry where CMMs and vision systems struggle. The data is so dense and accurate, it can be used to determine surface roughness. It can handle any kind of surface.

Q-PLUS Labs has a unique business model balancing an 80/20 split between metrology service and product sales.  As customer demand became greater and greater, expanding into product sales was a natural progression. “The last thing we expected to do was set up a product sales department that was anything less than impartial,” explains Mike. “Product sales aren’t typically like that. It is about being persuasive. That model doesn’t work for us because we’ve built our reputation as a lab around being impartial. We expanded into product sales because our customers asked us to. They said ‘you are doing our programming, our training, our inspection, our validation, our calibration, how come we can’t buy a machine from you?’ After the 100th time hearing that, I figured maybe metrology product sales could support our services.” It was under the condition that they would be 100% equipment neutral. Since they offer almost every brand under the sun, it makes them plausibly impartial. Q-PLUS Labs only uses and sells machines they believe in. Their aim is to have a customer for a very long time regardless of it being sales or service. “We use the products we sell, giving us the ability to custom-tailor the right product to meet the customer’s needs,” adds Corey Herde, Director of Marketing at Q-PLUS Labs. “Zeiss, Starrett, Renishaw, and Faro are not just brands to us, but extended family.” Mike has a lifetime of experience working together with the best in the industry. They want the best solution for you. Mike makes a huge effort to treat everyone from small mom and pop machine shops to huge corporations the way he, as a business owner, wants to be treated. He optimizes budgets and delivers the best solution and at a fair price. “Being service-based first gives us the ability that helps us fine tune our product sales.”

A dimensional metrologist runs a program that was written off line to verify a large part on the Zeiss Accura CMM. If it is a one-off then Q-PLUS Labs will typically manually check it. It doesn’t make sense to write a program for a single part, but their magic number to justify some level of automation is only two. They can write a program on the first part and run it on the second part and it will still take less time than manually inspecting two parts.

You can walk in the door of their Irvine, Ca. headquarters and buy a range of CMM’s and many other dimensional metrology products, but where Q-PLUS Labs really shines is in the customization. Q-PLUS Labs combines hardware and software to match up with the way they would/do inspect the part. “We build it and set everything up here,” details Mike. “We test it, perfect it, and then transfer that technology to the customer as a package deal. We go into their shop and train their people then continue to service the system for years to come. It’s an honor, but a big responsibility. Customers take all the risk out of their investment by having us prove it out first. It isn’t worth a ding to our reputation delivering anything less than our best.” Q-PLUS Labs always recommends the customer utilize the manufacturer’s training as a starting point to familiarize themselves with the technology. They consider what they provide to be advanced supplemental training when you really need to elevate your game and get the most out of your machine and the software.

Being able to service everyone is everything at Q-PLUS Labs. They have the ability to scan anything from a large area with LiDAR technology down to a microscopic level. It is this vast range that sets them apart as one of the most credentialed labs in the country. Unique items customers have sent to Q-PLUS Labs to scan or 3D model include: a church on the north shore of Hawaii, plant roots for a Harvard scientist, Eddie Van Halen’s guitar, Shelby Cobra parts, and they even helped analyze stress fractures on airline wreckage debris. In the short time Corey has been with Q-PLUS Labs, he has seen items he never thought he would encounter when joining a dimensional metrology company. “I’ve already seen some amazing parts scanned,” tells Corey. “The ones that stand out for me are watching the technician 3D scan the inside of a panel van and a real Star Trek Disruptor prop. The van makes sense as a practical application, but the gun was a customer’s passion project. You never know what is going to come through the door each day.” 

A small part is checked for form and surface roughness simultaneously using a Zeiss Surfcom.

Mike’s lab can best be described as Jay Leno’s garage, but with dimensional metrology equipment. Mike touts that the best aspect of having every tool under the sun is that if one isn’t getting it done for you, there are others that will. “It is amazing how far measurement has come,” touts Mike. “We used to do it old school with blue and scribe of castings and forgings. It was slow, not that accurate, and very expensive. Now we can do that 1000 times better, 100 times faster, and have a nice digital record.” Back in the day a customer would have to send back the part if they needed additional measurements. Now, Q-PLUS Labs can call up the file on their server and have that information at their fingertips within seconds. With a virtual part, it can be measured by a virtual CMM. “Our current best resolution is half a nanometer,” boasts Mike. “For reference, a human blood cell is approximately 7 microns in diameter, which is 7,000 nanometers. So, imagine 1/14,000 of a blood cell.” As you get into Nanotechnology, everything is getting smaller and smaller. Typically, metrology needs to be 10 times more accurate than the tolerance of what it is measuring. You don’t want your measurement step to consume too much of your part tolerance.  If not specified otherwise, Q-PLUS Labs’ in-house standard is to not consume more than 10% of the part tolerance. 10 to 1 is typically the most stringent standard, but it’s not uncommon for customers to get measurement results back that are at 100 to 1. “Many times we measure at 100 to 1 because we can,” half-jokes Mike. “If we can do it at no additional cost, why not be more accurate?”

Lab Manager John Michaels Lyons has been with Q-PLUS Labs for more than 20 years. The Starrett brand of metrology equipment has been with Q-PLUS for even longer. Together, state of the art equipment and hardworking like-minded professionals uphold the company tag line of “For Your Product’s Perfection.”

The lobby display case has everything in it from a simple toothbrush to a cold side turbocharger blade that spins at 125,000 RPM. Customers from every industry rely on the arsenal of metrology equipment Q-PLUS Labs has at their disposal in their 13,000 sq.ft. of lab space. “Technology has always been a big part of what we do,” explains Mike. “In the early years Lola (Mike’s wife and business partner) and I invested every penny we didn’t need to pay our mortgage and feed the kids into getting the latest and greatest. My first CMM is still out in the shop floor and works just as good today as it was when I first got it thanks to air bearings. As soon as we could, we invested in a CNC robotic CMM so we could measure faster. We have CMMs, vision systems, multi-sensor systems, 3D scanners and a ton of other stuff. We have half of a Noah’s ark of dimensional measurement equipment out there. We have at least one of nearly everything, and in some cases more than one.”

Customers send parts to Q-PLUS Labs for a variety of reasons, but two of those are; first article inspections and because they don’t have the equipment needed to do the job. “First article inspections that require a 3rd party verification is a specialty of ours,” tells Corey. “As a neutral party with the highest levels of accreditation, parts are sent to us for inspection and certification.” Customers have the ability to produce highly complex parts that have tight tolerances but don’t always have the right tool to verify it. Their current quality lab might support 90% of what they manufacturer, but that 10% might be out of their realm of capability. Instead of spending a lot of money on measurement equipment that would hardly get used, they go to Q-PLUS Labs. Large and small companies alike take advantage of Q-PLUS Labs amenities. “It is strange to some that organizations like JPL would need  our services,” explains Mike. “Everyone knows what they are capable of, and their staff and facilities are above reproach. Metrology seems like a natural complement to manufacturing and engineering, but it is a science all its own. To have someone on staff full time with our level of expertise and equipment to do the job is expensive.” “It’s like having a samurai warrior, but you only use him once a year,” adds Corey. “Sure, it is nice to employ a samurai, but having a dormant warrior, it isn’t the best use of his talents.”

Q-PLUS Labs are an authorized Faro reseller. They use the advanced scanning system in the field as well as in the lab. Geoff Sorenson is verifying a contour on an aerostructure part with the Faro scan arm. It’s 7-axis articulation and multiple sensors make quick work of tight-toleranced geometry.

Q-PLUS Labs is ITAR, AS9100, ISO9001, ISO1345, and ISO17025 accredited and keeps your data safe with the latest NIST 800 protocols and enterprise-class servers. “After 40 years in the business, I’ve learned requirements never loosen,” shrugs Mike. “You can fight it or become early adopters and get out ahead of it. Lots of customers today insist on the ISO17025 accreditation and earning that high level of accreditation was a beneficial experience for us.” Mike jokes that Q-PLUS Labs is like an emergency room for parts. We have to be good; we have to be fast, and many times we are the last word. We are the checkers, and no one else is checking them. We have to be spot on, and Mike’s self-regulation is often higher than what is required. “We have internal processes to check the checkers,” concludes Mike. “Our tag line is “For Your Product’s Perfection.” That is a tall order; we are only human but good systems and discipline make it possible. Ninety-nine percent sounds good on a college paper, but it doesn’t look so good when you equate it to one out of a hundred babies being dropped on their heads at birth. We need to stay our own worst critic and deliver the best possible unbiased results.”

For the longest time, Mike chased what he calls the “Holy grail of measurement,” that one machine that could do it all. Over time he realized there never will be a single machine for every measurement. The closest you will ever get is a collection of excellent machines operated by super smart people who know how to use them. If there is a better way to measure something Mike and his team of hard-working, like-minded professionals will find it.