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Measurements in daily life

16 May 2013


photo of Peter Mason

“Measurements in Daily Life” reminds us of how far accurate measurement is a cornerstone for business, health, security and our environment. Peter Mason, Chief Executive of the National Measurement Office (NMO), explains its role in our daily lives.


Every year on the 20th of May the worldwide metrology community celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the Metre Convention in 1875. This year the theme of “World Metrology Day” is of relevance to all metrologists. “Measurements in Daily Life” reminds us of how far accurate measurement is a cornerstone for business, health, security and our environment.  Peter Mason, Chief Executive of the National Measurement Office (NMO), explains its role in our daily lives.

The importance of metrology in our daily lives

Measurement is all-pervasive, impacting every aspect of our lives. We are weighed when we are born and measured for a coffin when we die. In between, we will encounter thousands of measurements, most of which we will not even notice. Some will be health-related, such as for diagnosis or to determine treatment dosage.  Others will be for our safety or comfort – many aspects of our environment are measured, perhaps to monitor hazardous pollutants or simply to ensure a comfortable temperature in the home. Measurements are also vital in defence and security to detect threats and to target weapons, and in scientific work where they are used to control and determine the outcome of all experiments.

Our economic lives

But the area where measurement has the greatest significance is in our economic lives.  Without an agreed system of measurements to quantify goods, trade cannot take place.  This has long been true of basic commodities.  Now in today’s globalised world it is increasingly the case that it is essential to the manufacturing of quality items.  As an example of the latter, think of an Airbus – its parts are constructed in several countries before final assembly in France, and if the measurements were not both precise and identical, it would not be a safe plane to fly.

fuel case study image

 

It is in this area that “Legal Metrology” – the application of measurement science for trade and other regulated purposes – is so important, underpinning the sale of food, petrol and many other goods at both retail and wholesale level. And while NMO has a wide variety of responsibilities, working with Trading Standards Officers to ensure fair and accurate measurement is available and used for transactions regulated by law is absolutely vital in supporting a sustainable trading economy.

Confidence in legal measurements

In the UK, a legislative and practical enforcement programme is in place to ensure confidence in trade. Weighing and measuring equipment used in legally controlled applications undergoes conformity assessment prior to being placed on the market and put into use. NMO undertakes type examination on behalf of the Secretary of State for most instruments covered by UK National legislation and operates as a Notified Body under two European Metrology Directives. Instruments generally require type examination followed by verification which can be undertaken by local authority Notified Bodies or manufacturers under the control of a Notified Body. The trader will be responsible for their ongoing maintenance and accuracy, but the local authority Trading Standards Services will independently inspect equipment on a risk based approach.

Both NMO and the Trading Standards Service work closely with manufacturers and suppliers. To ensure that legal weights and measures are consistent throughout the world, the NMO is also active in WELMEC (the European cooperation in legal metrology) and in OIML (the International Organisation of Legal Metrology), so that UK consumers and businesses have confidence in legal measurements when they trade or travel abroad.

The importance of Weights & Measures in the origins of the Trading Standards profession is a matter of historical record.  But as the theme of this year’s World Metrology Day illustrates, the relevance of measurements in our daily lives, continues to be as great as ever.

Legal metrology calibration and maintenance of coinage standards

NMO also carries out an annual calibration of coin standards for all UK and New Zealand coins struck by the Royal Mint, and provision of trial plates of gold, silver, platinum, nickel, copper and aluminium for assay at the Goldsmiths' Hall. This work is centred on a ceremony known as the Trial of the Pyx, which is held in accordance with the Coinage Act.

London 2012 - part of our daily lives last summer

The London 2012 Games was a major international multi-sport event celebrated in London and across the UK from 27 July to 12 August 2012. The accuracy of measurement played a vital role in the Games with an array of measuring equipment covering stand on scales, suspended scales, platform scales and top pan scales being used to determine winners and fair play.

Daily calibrations were required to be carried out on the scales used for Boxing, Judo, Taekwondo, Wrestling and Weightlifting.  Weighing and measuring equipment were supplied for a wide range of Olympic events, including: Combative sports, Water Sports, Cycling,   Weightlifting, Shooting, Fencing, Handball and Equestrian.

image of a scale weighing a rowing boat

Testing a boat by linking 2 platform scales together in order to find out the weight

Here are some examples of how weighing was crucial to some of the Olympic events:

  • In weightlifting there was a required accuracy in the weight of a contestant down to 10 grams.  Once a weight lifter has been weighed into their category, the judges might need to use a system called “count back”, when the lighter person is determined the winner, if the contestants are tied on lifting the same amount of weight
  • In cycling suspended scales were used to measure the weight of Olympic bikes to ensure they weigh at least 6.8kilos
  • Shooting required measuring equipment to weigh the shotgun cartridges. Cartridges have a maximum shot load of 24g for Olympic trap, skeet and double trap; and up to 28g FITASC sporting, and 36g for helice. 

And now horsemeat.......

More topically, at the time of writing, twenty products in the UK have so far been found to have 1% or higher levels of horse DNA following more than 5,400 industry tests. Measurement is central to current exploration of what detection levels are achievable, and acceptable. Scientists at LGC, the UK’s National Metrology Institute for chemical and bioanalytical measurements, are looking at what levels of species crossover contamination could occur during the good manufacturing practice production of minced meat in UK meat processing plants.  Even a quick glance through a daily newspaper shows us that it is becoming increasingly apparent that measurement affects our daily lives.”

The Government's role

Apart from being a major user of the measurement infrastructure for its own activities, not least the regulatory activities described above, the Government has a role in supporting the measurement system for the public good. Left to the market, it would be inadequately funded, despite the private sector providing the vast majority of the near-market accreditation, testing and measurement services that rest upon the NMS infrastructure.  

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It is essential that there is an internationally agreed system of standards and, since the health and wealth of the nation is so dependent on their use, the Government must play an active role in ensuring UK users have access to the right standards when they are needed, and at an acceptable cost. It is possible to buy access to standards from overseas measurement bodies, and indeed much of the research into developing and improving standards is carried out collaboratively, often with additional EU funding. But if there is no domestic provision, others could take competitive advantage through pricing or by delaying access. The latter point is particularly significant with respect to new measurement technologies. The potential to benefit from innovation is often dependent on first-mover advantage.

A key element of this are the government funded metrology programmes which carry out research into measurement issues and disseminate the knowledge and standards developed with the user community.  Indeed this is where the bulk of public expenditure is directed.  These issues cover many things that have a direct effect on our daily lives, addressing major societal challenges such as growth, energy and sustainability.

I greatly appreciate this opportunity to re-affirm the importance of measurements in our daily lives and our commitment to the important work of our trading standards colleagues.

For more information:

World Metrology Day - http://www.worldmetrologyday.org/

NMO – www.bis.gov.uk/nmo

Measurements in daily life brochure - includes several NMS measurement case studies (PDF, 1.8 Mb) 

Read the World Metrology Day press release  

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