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Turning 100: NIST Helps to Keep U.S. Technology at the Leading Edge

Turning 100: NIST Helps to Keep U.S. Technology at the Leading Edge

The new millennium opens with the Information Age shining on its horizon, just as the last century dawned with the Age of Electricity. Across this 100-year span of economy-building, life-improving advances, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has been a solid contributor to the nation's technological progress-in industry, science, and government.

Consider image processing, DNA diagnostic "chips," smoke detectors, and automated error-correcting software for machine tools. Or take, for example, atomic clocks, X-ray standards for mammography, the scanning tunneling microscope, pollution-control technology, and high-speed dental drills. Then, there's the National Conference on Weights and Measures, the organization of state and local officials who assure fairness in sales of more than $4 trillion worth of goods and services-from deli meats to gasoline to railroad freight.

NIST helped these and many other innovations sprout and spread across the nation and the globe. A broad and varied stream of benefits has resulted, such as decreases in train derailments (thanks to standards for ensuring the quality of steel); smoother-riding, lower-maintenance automobiles (the result of technology that improves the fit of assembled parts); and reductions in sulfur-dioxide emissions (through improved measurements in the oil industry).

Since 1901, when it began as the National Bureau of Standards, NIST has served as a behind-the-scenes specialist. Its research, measurement tools, and technical services are integrated deeply into many of the systems and operations that, collectively, drive the economy-manufacturing cells, satellite systems, communication and transportation networks, laboratories, factories, hospitals, businesses, and the extended enterprises of the new economy.

For instance:

  • Activities ranging from stock trading to space navigation all rely on NIST's Measurement and Standards Laboratories for high-accuracy timekeeping-recently enhanced by a new NIST-built atomic clock that will neither gain nor lose a second in nearly 20 million years. Each day, via the Internet, NIST receives more than 20 million automated requests for time.
  • U.S. makers of printed wiring boards-the laminated boards that are the nervous system of nearly every electronic product-reversed declines in world market share by exploiting quality- improving, cost-reducing innovations resulting from a five-year cost-sharing research partnership enabled by NIST's Advanced Technology Program.
  • A rural Wisconsin manufacturer of gaskets averted a plant shutdown and the loss of 350 local jobs by greatly improving productivity-one of thousands of practical benefits realized through performance-improving technical assistance provided by NIST's Manufacturing Extension Partnership and its affiliates.
  • The "Baldrige Index"-made up of publicly traded companies that have won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, which NIST manages in cooperation with the private sector- outperformed the Standard & Poor's 500 by almost 5 to 1 in 1999, continuing a six-year streak that attests to the business value of applying the criteria developed by the widely modeled award program.

These examples illustrate how NIST strives to meet the high expectations set for it in 1900 by the congressional committee that recommended its creation:

"[N]o more essential aid could be given to manufacturing, commerce, the makers of scientific apparatus, the scientific work of the Government, of schools, colleges, and universities than by the establishment of the institution proposed in this bill."

At the Turn of a New Century

NIST was made to measure, a job that continues to grow in importance. And since the late 1980s, it has added new roles-all designed to further the nation's technological progress and to strengthen its economic performance.

Today, NIST's Measurement and Standards Laboratories must keep up with rising demand for technical support, fueled, in part, by increasing world trade. Since the agency was established, U.S. merchandise exports have risen from less than $2 billion to more than $680 billion. About 80 percent of world merchandise trade is affected by standards and regulations, which often insist on conformance with specified measurement requirements.

Also driving demand for diverse kinds of measurement support are advances in science, the accelerat- ing pace of innovation, the emergence of new industries-such as nanotechnology and wireless communications-and the increasing sophistication of mature industries-such as steel and automobiles. Most significant of all is the proliferation of information technology and its insinuation into nearly every facet of the economy and society. This ongoing trend has spawned needs for entirely new types of measurements and testing methods.

In the late 1980s, Congress assigned NIST a new set of responsibilities, broadening the Institute's focus on the health of the nation's technology infrastructure and helping U.S. industry to counter competitive challenges. The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award, created in 1987, is widely credited with making quality a national priority.

In 1989, NIST established the first federally funded extension centers to help small manufacturers improve their capabilities and performance-a necessity for survival in the global marketplace. Today, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership is a nationwide network of more than 400 not-for-profit centers and field offices that, in 1999, provided technical assistance to nearly 27,000 smaller manufacturers. Since 1990, NIST's Advanced Technology Program, a partnership program that encourages U.S. companies in all sectors to stay ahead of the innovation curve, has selected 468 industry-led projects for funding, including 157 joint ventures. The ATP's cost-shared support of high-risk, high-economic impact industrial R&D has enabled important technical advances across a broad landscape-biotechnology, composite materials, wireless communications, manufacturing, software, and many, many other fast-moving technology fields. On the threshold of its second century, NIST is committed to building the advanced science and technology infrastructure needed to ensure future prosperity and the global competitiveness of U.S. industry.

Created July 22, 2013, Updated January 6, 2017