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Why is the measurement infrastructure vital in economic recovery from COVID-19?


Every day we use products and services which are enabled by measurement science, because we have trust in the standards supporting them. This confidence does not happen by accident but is the result of a well-established infra-technology – our measurement infrastructure, which is based on a globally agreed system that is implemented locally. 

Metrology, the science of measurement, oversees the maintenance and improvement of the measurement infrastructure, continually responding to evolving societal needs. NPL, as the UK’s National Metrology Institute, is responsible for the measurement standards and is one of the six laboratories who make up the UK National Measurement System (NMS). 

The NMS is responsible for stimulating good measurement practice and enables UK businesses to make accurate and traceable measurements, for the benefit of the nation. The system provides the underpinning measurement infrastructure and technologies that are essential for enabling science, innovation, research and development.   

Our reliance on the NMS is often overlooked, but like many of our infrastructures, such as road and water networks, it would be noticed if it did not work. The fact that it is invisible to many is indicative of its success, but our economy, our quality of life and often our very lives depend on the robust and reliable measurements it enables. 

This measurement infrastructure provides critical support to business, from calibration laboratories and instrument manufacturers, to measurements in use on a production line or in delivering a service. 

The measurement infrastructure is vital to the UK economy, for example due to its role in maintaining standards which enable global trade and manufacturing by ensuring consistency and recognition of measurement units and standards throughout the world. As a result, measurement science has a key role to play in accelerating the economic recovery from COVID-19, including in emerging sectors such as the digital economy. 

Measurement needs do not stand still. Increasing the productivity of UK industry is essential in sustaining and improving prosperity for our nation, and measurement plays a fundamental role in optimising and improving industrial processes. The rise of new markets, innovations in industrial processes, disruptive technologies, and societal challenges in health, security and the environment all drive the need for new or innovative measurement techniques and standards.

Measurement helps to improve the efficiency of businesses by reducing waste, increasing productivity and improving value for money. Around 75% of all errors that occur in production are pre-determined in the earliest phases of manufacturing. However, 80% of these errors are not detected until either the manufacturing process or after sale. Advanced metrology allows manufacturers to reduce their scrappage rates by creating tighter production processes with better control of parameters that influence the quality of a final product.  

To maximise productivity, the outputs of R&D need to be commercialised and brought to market as quickly as possible. A key driver in accelerating this process is giving potential customers or regulators confidence that a new technology works as well as its owner claims. Standards and accreditation are delivered through established methods for testing the performance of a product or process, which are rooted in measurement certainty. 

Increasing the adoption of better measurement will provide significant competitive advantage for the UK, as all nations now begin their recovery from COVID-19. It can help to accelerate the UK’s recovery, making up for lost time and ensure resiliency for any future or further disruption. NPL’s Measurement for Recovery (M4R) programme is providing businesses with access to world-leading experts in testing and measurement, providing them with advice or short consultancies to support their response and recovery activities, free of charge. 

Our goal is to ensure that our measurement expertise and that of our partners drives the UK’s innovation landscape and is utilised to its utmost to support UK industry in its recovery from the COVID-19 lockdown and beyond. 

Whilst the measurement infrastructure supports all aspects of the physical measurement world, there are several emerging sectors which go beyond the physical and have unique technology needs. These topics include big data and the digital world, clean growth and achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050, artificial intelligence, industry 4.0 and future communications, personal medicine and the aging population. 

As a result of their data intensive and non-physical nature, these topics are not covered by the traditional measurement infrastructure, whose history evolved from the physical world of weights and measures. However, they require the stability and control that the application of measurement science brings, in order to advance rapidly. As a result, NPL has identified the need for the implementation of a new measurement infrastructure to unleash the potential of these emerging technologies and sectors which will revolutionise society and the economy. This new framework would build on the traditional measurement infrastructure to create a novel approach, not involving physical measurement standards.  

In the future, the measurement infrastructure will create many benefits including: providing the focus for national and global leadership in the development, validation and agreed standardisation of measurement methods, making the UK a world leading superpower in these areas with a competitive advantage over other economies

The underpinning and flexible nature of this new measurement infrastructure would be agile and universal, able to apply its principles to support, at short notice, new demands on the economy and UK government, providing resilience to cope with any future national requirements or crises. This would future proof the UK measurement infrastructure to flexibly develop and support yet-to-be-conceived technologies. 

The system will enable faster, more productive and efficient transfer of science into innovation to disseminate best practice for data assessment, interpretation, curation and reuse. It will form a new national infra-technology that supports technologies and challenges equally. It will also place innovation at the heart of economic recovery and future growth and accelerate progress towards the government’s 2.4% R&D target. 

Lastly, a digital infrastructure will provide equal support across the regions and nations of the UK, supporting the levelling up agenda, as well as a progressive approach that ensures the UK attracts and retains a highly skilled, diverse workforce. 

By Dr Richard Brown, Head of Metrology, NPL