Accredited testing laboratories for the construction and civil works sector in Colombia.
By: Paola Aguirre V., Diana Jácome M., and Mauricio Rodríguez R. International Technical Direction. National Accreditation Body of Colombia – ONAC
Let’s start with a little history about accredited laboratories in Colombia.
When we talk about accredited laboratories, it is important to highlight the fact that the first accreditation granted by ONAC in laboratories scheme, was to a construction and civil works one. It was in 2009 (14 years ago), the same year ONAC started with the accreditation activity in the country.
Today, this is the sector with the highest number of accredited testing laboratories (52) that represents 19% of the total number of accredited testing laboratories. Thus, since 2019 a growth trend has been evidenced in this sector of laboratories, as identified in Graph 1, the highest growth rate was achieved in 2021, reaching 10 new accredited laboratories. Moreover, the first semester of 2023, accreditation has been granted to 3 new laboratories and there are another 5 in the process of accreditation, maintaining the growth trend that started since 2019.
In addition, it is worth mentioning that since 2014, the testing laboratories scheme has the international recognition signed with the InterAmerican Accreditation Cooperation (IAAC) and the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC), which are multilateral agreements that allows around 100 economies worldwide to accept and recognize the results issued by testing laboratories accredited by ONAC.
Additionally, Graph 1 also shows the number of new laboratories accredited pr year (grants), the increase in the number of testing or the number of sites (expansion), laboratories that have had their accreditation withdrawn (withdrawals), and the net number of accredited laboratories in the sector. Thus, since the first accredited laboratory, the sector achieves an average growth rate of 3.3 new laboratories per year.
Regarding the withdrawals of accreditation, no clear trend is observed, these are considered isolated cases, with a maximum of 4 for 2022, 2 in the years 2015 and 2017, and values of 1 or 0, for the other years. On the other hand, in the last years there is also an increasing trend regarding the expansion of accreditation, taking into account that only until 2013 the first expansion of the scope was presented by one laboratory accredited in the construction sector, with values between 1 or 2 laboratories that expanded their accredited scope between 2013 and 2020.
In the last two years there was a substantial increase in applications, 8 laboratories in 2021, 9 laboratories in 2022 and 4 so far in 2023 have expanded their accredited scope, showing that not only in the last two years the number of accredited laboratories in the sector has increased, but that laboratories are seeking to expand the portfolio or capacity of their accredited services to meet market needs.
The fact that the number of accreditations for testing laboratories in this sector is predominant with respect to the other sectors of laboratories accredited by ONAC, demonstrates the importance and confidence that the user of these services, recognize in accreditation, which is a fundamental element to confirm the competence to guarantee the validity of the results that are issued, from which relevant decisions will be taken within the processes of planning and execution of the constructions and civil works.
Overview of accredited laboratories
When we talk about accredited laboratories, it is important to keep in mind which is the scope of each accreditation, i.e., which are the specific activities that each laboratory performs competently. These scopes are dynamic and depend on the services that each laboratory has demonstrated that can perform competently, including, in effect, the traceability of its measurements to the International System of Measurements (SI).
One of the aspects that are part of the accredited scope are the laboratory locations, from which three types of laboratories can be differentiated: permanent, on-site and mobile laboratories. The first ones, are those that perform the tests in the permanent location of the laboratory, which is clearly registered in the accredited scope and using equipment that cannot be moved from one location to another.
The second category is characterized because the tests are performed with portable equipment, directly at the sampling site, which may be at the front of the construction or civil works, delivering results immediately in most cases. And the last one, it is the complete laboratory that moves to the sampling site, regardless of the nature of the equipment used in the tests. Each type of laboratory presents a series of conditions, restrictions and benefits when providing services, but, as long as they are covered by the accreditation granted by ONAC, they comply with the elements of competence established in the international standard ISO/IEC 17025 and the requirements of the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC).
Currently, ONAC has 52 accredited Conformity Assessment Bodies (CABs) for this sector, legal entities that subscribe the accreditation with ONAC. The operational headquarters or Laboratories reach a total of 67 (permanent site) covering 11 departments from 32 in whole country, and 20 cities and/or municipalities, information that can be identified in Figure 1. Additionally, fourteen (14) CABs have laboratories that are accredited to perform on-site testing and one (1) corresponds to a mobile laboratory, being this the only sector that has this type of laboratory.
As can be seen in Figure 1, the largest number of accredited laboratories are located in the city of Bogotá, D.C., with 32 laboratories, equivalent to 48% of the total, Antioquia has 8 laboratories, representing 12%, Atlántico with 7 laboratories, reaches 10%, Cundinamarca with 6 laboratories equals 9%, Santander with 4 laboratories accredited laboratories reaches 6%, Norte de Santander with 3 laboratories reaches 5%, Valle del Cauca and Bolívar with 2 laboratories, 3% each one and Risaralda, Caldas and Boyacá with 1 laboratory, correspond to 1.5% each one. In general terms, testing activities for the sector are centralized in the departments of the Andean, Caribbean and Pacific regions, covering the main capital cities. It is important to clarify that the 14 on-site laboratories and the mobile laboratory cover the entire national territory.
When we refer to the scopes accredited in Construction laboratories, it is possible to analyze them from several aspects, starting with the type of testing provided, as shown in Graph 2, in which tests under mechanical techniques predominate, reaching 40% of the total accredited tests offered by the accredited laboratories, tests that include: tensile, tension, breakage, compression, among others, to determine material resistance.
Secondly, there are gravimetric techniques, which constitute 35 % of the total number of accredited tests, including: moisture determination and ratios, particle size distribution, aggregate index, density, among others. 12% corresponds to physical tests, which include the determination of surface quality, linear mass, moisture content by distillation, among others. 6 % of the accredited tests are dimensional, with tests such as: measurement of projections in bars, thickness of compacted specimens of asphalt mixtures, measurement of graphite and wires, among others.
And finally, the remaining 7% (Others) corresponds to tests performed under various techniques such as: physicochemical, colorimetry, optical emission spectrophotometry, rheology, among others. All these tests are of great relevance for the sector, as they allow to determine the quality of materials and items, and thus guarantee their reliability and adequacy in the construction processes.
Another way to classify the accredited scopes of the sector’s laboratories corresponds to the test item, although a laboratory may have within its portfolio, for example, tests in the mechanical field, this is limited to a detailed group of items, for which it has demonstrated that it can provide services competently. Graph 3 shows the distribution of accredited tests by type of item.
The accredited tests cover several types of items and materials. Among these, we find tests for soils, rocks and aggregates (fine and coarse aggregates), which are mostly gravimetric and the most offered in the sector, reaching 49 % of the total accredited scopes. Then, with 17 % are the tests performed on asphalt, cement and pavements, including hydraulic cement, and with 9 % the tests on asphalt mixtures, in which for these two types of materials the tests are predominantly of mechanical and gravimetric type.
Accredited tests on steel materials (rebar, smooth bars, electro welded mesh, smooth and drawn steel wire, among others) represent 12 % of the total number of tests, and for this type of materials, most of the tests are mechanical. Tests on concrete (including hydraulic concrete) and prefabricated concrete, in which mechanical compression and flexural tests predominate, represent 9 %, and tests on masonry materials (paving blocks, slabs, bricks, blocks, etc.) of mechanical type represent 4 %.
Although the materials and items mentioned above are those that predominate in the construction and civil works sector, there are also accredited testing laboratories that offer services for complementary materials and items or items of indirect use for the sector, such as electrical elements, plastics, pipes, among others. All these scopes and the accredited laboratories that provide these services can be consulted in the Official Directory of Accredited Laboratories – DOA.
If we analyze the accredited scopes by type of standard or testing standards used for the provision of services, we can identify a distribution as shown in Graph 4. In which we can see that 47% of the tests offered by accredited laboratories in this sector are performed according to the guidelines of the standards of the National Roads Institute (INVIAS), which is probably related to the needs generated by the institutions that outline the requirements in the contracting of public civil works.
While 34 % of the accredited tests are performed under National Technic Colombian standard – NTC standards, issued by ICONTEC, recognized by the Colombian Government as the National Standardization Organization, these standards are usually adoptions of international standards or standards developed by national standardization committees. In a low percentage, 9%, there are tests with ASTM international standards, and 10% with other standards such as AASHTO (American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials), API (American Petroleum Institute), among others.
Considering that almost half of the tests are performed with INVIAS standards, documents based on NTC standards, which are derived from international standards such as ASTM, it is necessary to call attention to the fact that these standards are outdated in relation to the international documents on which they are based (mainly 2013).
This is due to the fact that the speed with which international standards are produced and updated is greater than the speed with which these documents are adopted in Colombia; even more so, when they are included in National Technical Regulations or in the terms for contracting of these services by the State. This lack of updating represents a competitive disadvantage for national laboratories in relation of the mutual recognition agreements that ONAC has signed with ILAC.
Finally, from the information available in ONAC, it is possible to identify the type of organization that owns the accredited laboratories. Most of the accredited laboratories in the sector correspond to private entities, reaching 85%, being clear that it is this type of entities that can adjust their strategies, budgets and operations in a more dynamic way to the market demand in this economic sector. The remaining 15% of the laboratories correspond to public entities. Now, considering the importance of this sector in a developing country like ours, it is highlighted that the academy has taken part in this sector, 9 laboratories are identified ascribed to educational institutions, reaching a participation of 17 %, three laboratories of SENA (National Learning Service) and 6 laboratories of universities, of which two correspond to public universities.
The analysis carried out allows identifying the growth trend of accredited testing laboratories for the construction and civil works sector, as well as some classifications that can be made based on the accredited scopes and the legal nature of the accredited laboratories, but it also allows showing the areas, specific sectors, techniques, items or materials, where there is no supply or the existing supply is insufficient.
An economic and growth sector, such as construction and civil works, in terms of infrastructure for a country owes its success, growth and contribution to society, in part to the quality assurance of its processes, as well as the search for efficiency in its construction methods, for which accredited conformity assessment services, such as the activities performed by testing laboratories, are fundamental and indispensable, in the different stages, from planning, to the confirmation of designs and compliance with specifications once the works or constructions are completed.
For this reason, having a greater capacity of accredited testing, with a greater offer and with the globally accepted level of competence, is a strategic aspect in the competitiveness of the sector.