The United States and 11 other nations have embarked on a pioneering effort that leverages the Internet and cyberspace collaborations to advance and harmonize measurement capabilities in the Americas, furthering hemispheric goals of free trade and increased scientific cooperation.
Meeting Dec. 4, at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., officials from the U.S. Department of Commerce, Organization of American States and participating nations previewed SIMnet, which will undergo its initial intra-hemispheric trial later this month. Configured by NIST using commercially available information technology, SIMnet is an Internet-enabled, interactive system intended to support real-time comparisons of measurements performed at laboratories throughout the Americas.
"In global commerce, millions upon millions of measurements are performed daily," NIST Director Raymond Kammer told the international audience. "Businesses, governments and consumers need measurements they can trust. That is what SIM (the Interamerican System of Metrology—abbreviated as SIM, for the Spanish translation, Sistema Interamericano de Metrologiá) and SIMnet are all about: enabling reliable, high-quality measurement capabilities for the entire Western Hemisphere."
Scheduled for two years of pilot testing with an expanding number of countries, the new system is designed to accelerate efforts to establish measurement equivalence among nations. Traditionally, such efforts have entailed international "round robin" exchanges of equipment and personnel. The process is logistically complex and, usually, slow—"too slow," said Robert Hebner, NIST’s acting deputy director, to keep pace with the rapidly evolving global economy.
By exploiting information technology, Hebner explained, "we expect to create a measurement system in the Americas which can change rapidly and which is flexible, nimble and accurate."
A uniformly reliable system of measurements is essential to the envisioned Free Trade Area of the Americas. At the 1994 Summit of the Americas in Miami, leaders of all 34 OAS member nations set the goal of hemisphere-wide free trade by the year 2005. When fully implemented, SIMnet is expected to be a key enabling element of the interamerican measurement system that is evolving under OAS leadership.
The system, said Sitoo Mukerji, director of the OAS Office of Science and Technology, is a "seed of real hemispheric integration."
"This is, in fact, a pioneering experiment," Mukerji said. "The success of this [SIMnet] will set the standard of global acceptance of the Internet as a vehicle for real-time measurements. Through the use of the Internet, distances between national metrology laboratories will become irrelevant."
SIMnet will be used first to realize consistent electrical measurements needed for many products and processes. Scientists at the 12 national metrology institutes participating in the pilot will compare results of a complex, 29-point calibration of digital multimeters, used to measure voltage, current and resistance. In phases of the pilot, the system will support multicountry comparisons to establish the equivalence of mass and dimensional measurements.
By means of personal computers, videoconferencing technology and software for data sharing and remote control of equipment, SIMnet enables remote collaboration. Scientists in all participating countries will be able to observe staff in another nation as they perform a measurement comparison. Remote observers will be able to share customized measurement software, review data as they are collected, ask questions, serve as consultants to the measurement institute performing the comparison, and even operate equipment located at their distant colleagues’ laboratories.
Countries participating in the SIMnet pilot are Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, Uruguay and the United States. Measurement experts and information technology specialists from these nations underwent two days of training at NIST last week to learn the system’s capabilities.
"What we are trying to do here today," said Mauricio Frota, Brazil’s director of scientific and industrial metrology and president of the SIM advisory council, "is, in fact, revolutionary."
The SIM advisory council passed a resolution commending NIST for creating SIMnet. "This unique effort," the resolution says, "will certainly speed up—and develop greater confidence in—the measurement systems of all SIM nations, thereby fulfilling a cardinal requirement for the establishment of the Free Trade Area of the Americas."
As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Technology Administration, NIST promotes economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements and standards through four partnerships: the Measurement and Standards Laboratories, the Advanced Technology Program, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership and the Baldrige National Quality Program.