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President’s Address: National Conference on Weights and Measures Annual Meeting

Good morning. Thank you, Doug, for that kind introduction and to all of you for the warm welcome. I’d like to thank Don and Brett for their hospitality and to recognize them for their leadership of the NCWM. Thank you, Randy, for your inspiring remarks in welcoming us all to Milwaukee.

You should know that America is grateful for all that you do. I am truly at home with the NCWM, and honored to serve as honorary president. You, our nation’s weights and measures inspectors and experts, are on the front lines of metrology. You protect the public, day in and day out, from fraud, from faulty technology. You are the guardians of fair commerce for the USA. Thank you for your service and commitment.

2019 is a very big year for us all.  I’d like to share a video with you that highlights our achievements in advancing measurements.

And I do love coming to Milwaukee. Thanks to our hosts, and all who worked so hard to make sure this program for the NCWM came together.

The people of this city and this state are, among many other things, really dedicated to their beer. And I’m sure those thirsty Wisconsinites expect to receive every ounce — or milliliter — of beer that they pay for. Given the diligence of the state’s weights and measures inspectors, I think they can be confident that they do. 

In 2018, the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection weights and measures team performed more than 250,000 inspections at more than 6,000 business locations statewide. Here’s a small sampling of the things Wisconsin’s weights and measures inspectors found. How do these numbers compare to those for your state? 

  • Wisconsin gas pumps either provided the correct amount of fuel or overdelivered in nearly 100% of tests.
  • Prices at the register were accurate or in the customer's favor in nearly 99% of tests.
  • Tests on scales used to weigh products were accurate or measured in the customer's favor almost 100% of the time.
  • Products sold by weight were labeled accurately in almost 99% of tests.
  • Inspectors tested more than 5,000 fuel samples for quality last year, and nearly 99% of them met required national standards.

Wisconsin inspectors also had impressive stats for ensuring any devices or businesses found out of compliance promptly corrected the issue or faced penalties. In 2018, they collected almost $200,000 in fines. 

Way to go Wisconsin! 

And it illustrates only too clearly why metrology enforcement often goes unnoticed. The better you do your jobs, the fewer the complaints, the lower the visibility for the topic. It’s achievements like these that I’ve come here today to recognize. 

I also want to reaffirm NIST’s strong support for your work. NIST was founded to fulfill a promise made in the Constitution, to fix the standard of weights and measures. We take that mission as seriously as you do. We are true partners with NCWM and each state and territory of the USA in this shared mission.

Part of the way we do that is by supporting the historic cooperation between NIST and NCWM; another part is by helping to maintain the measurement infrastructure of the country through standards. The kind of standards you use every day to do your work ultimately trace back to standards and measurements at NIST. That system is also harmonized on a global scale so that a meter in Milwaukee is the same as a meter in Marseille. 

But the old SI system had a small but significant problem. While the world’s defined unit of mass, the International Prototype Kilogram, which is held in a vault outside of Paris, could not change by definition, the kilogram artifacts around the world had been changing their mass relative to it. 

This was a maddening problem, but finally, after 40 years of work, the unit of mass has been redefined in terms of fundamental properties of nature. I was proud and humbled to lead the U.S. delegation last November to the General Conference of Weights and Measures in Versailles for an historic vote that made this possible.

Something as momentous as the redefinition of not just the kilogram, but also the ampere, kelvin and mole, only comes around once in a century. Delegates representing the 60 members states that have signed the Treaty of Meter voted unanimously to adopt the redefinitions based on natural constants for SI units. The change was made effective on May 20, World Metrology Day, of this year.

Now, some of you might be wondering if this change will have any effect on your work. The short answer is, not noticeably. 

Our goal, together with BIPM and the world’s national metrology institutes, was not only to replace the kilogram artifact and other units with unchanging definitions based on nature but also to smooth the impact it might have on commerce. 

We’re taking great care with translation from the Kibble balance, the state-of-the-art device that we use to realize the new kilogram definition, to the working physical standards that you will continue to use to check scales and consumer products in the field every day. There will be little to no change in the way weights and measures inspectors do their jobs. 

However, we do expect the improved measurement accuracy possible with the redefinitions to enable new technologies of the future. This is likely to be particularly true for small mass measurements like those used for pharmaceutical research and for some ultraprecise electrical measurements.

The new definition of the kilogram is based on universal electromagnetic and mechanical forces and on natural constants such as Planck’s constant, which relates a light particle’s energy to its frequency. A Kibble balance, and therefore a primary realization of a mass unit, can be done at any size, not just one kilogram. This means the redefinition of the kilogram will enable accurate and precise measurement at all sizes, from nanograms to the mass of planets. 

In this way, the redefined kilogram will eventually touch all our lives. It now allows better measurement anytime, anywhere since the world no longer needs access to a single artifact in France, and it improves scalability of measurements at the same time.

We also know that if you build it they will come. With redefinition of the second based on the cesium atom, we eventually got GPS. And with redefinition of these latest four units we will undoubtedly get new technologies we can’t even imagine today. 

So, while big changes in the weights and measures field and legal metrology won’t be coming anytime soon from the redefinition, change is coming in other ways. Regarding changes to the way you do things, I see that there are several items on the docket this year that will have an impact.

First, there is the matter of the regulation of credit card skimmers on gas pumps. Across the nation, criminals have been attacking consumers at the gas pump, stealing their credit card numbers. The problem has gotten so bad that in some instances the Secret Service has gotten involved. 

According to NBC News, just this past holiday season, agents surveyed 400 gas stations in 16 states and recovered 200 skimmers, each skimmer containing information for an average of 80 consumers’ credit cards. The initiative is estimated to have saved consumers at least $6 million in its first few months alone. 

Often it is weights and measures officials who discover these devices during their normal duties and call the police. The question here is if weights and measures officials should add these devices to their regulatory duties. I will leave it to the NCWM to determine the best course of action. But the fact that this theft of customers’ important private data is being discovered and stopped by weights and measures inspectors is something for this group to be proud of.

Another item under consideration concerns a new method for measuring the accuracy of fuel dispensers using flow meters. This is a very complicated issue. 

As you can see here, five-gallon provers are tried and true. Here’s a photo from our archives during the nation’s 150th birthday party in Philadelphia in 1926. 

These provers are simple to use, but they are an ergonomic challenge. They’re heavy, and there’s always the risk of spillage or fire. Flow meters offer a potential way to address these concerns, along with being faster and having digital output, but adopting new technology is always a challenge. 

Will these flow meters be as accurate? Do they have product or temperature limitations? Could they be subject to fraud? We must be ready to embrace new technology when it makes sense, and yet know when the costs outweigh the benefits. I look forward to hearing progress reports on this topic. 

There’s also the issue of tare. No one wants to pay for the cost of a product’s packaging, especially when you’re buying an expensive item. 

However, there is some debate as to whether weighing machines should print receipts showing the gross weight, the tare, and the net weight as opposed to just showing the net weight as they do now. As we’ve learned with unit pricing, consumers usually benefit from more information.

The guidelines this body sets don’t just affect some abstract thing we call the public; they affect each and every one of us. As you deliberate this question, I ask you to be sympathetic to both the needs of the consumer and the needs of the businesses, including small businesses, which ultimately must implement any changes in tare practices. 

In these and in every other way we can, NIST is here to offer guidance, provide technical expertise and help achieve our common goals with NCWM. 

In terms of training, in calendar year 2018, the NIST Office of Weights and Measures held 51 separate training events and trained a total of 944 students. These training events included weeklong and two-week-long metrology seminars at NIST, several day- to weeklong on-site training seminars on devices and field inspection, and call-in webinars and info hours.

In FY19, for the first time, we began giving two-hour webinars on the topics of package and labeling, and price verification, while continuing our traditional training events.

So far this fiscal year we have trained 55 students in four of these new webinar training events. We’ll be rolling out another webinar, “Overview of Handbook 133: Checking the Net Contents of Packaged Goods,” in September of this year.

We are also developing a prerecorded webinar on “The method of sale and test procedure for packages of animal bedding.” When completed in FY2020, this will be viewable at any time on the NIST website. 

If you have not taken advantage of these opportunities, I urge you to do so. They are a great resource.

My key message today is that everything we do at NIST lines up perfectly with what all of you in the weights and measures community do every day. We are partners.

NIST work covers an amazing breadth of work from Nobel Prize-level research on quantum computing to helping ensure that consumers get what they pay for in the marketplace. But the common denominator is to protect the public, assure uniformity in the marketplace, and to help businesses compete. The pace of change in technologies and markets requires us all to adapt.

You have NIST's unwavering support and gratitude for your dedication to this shared mission. We are also committed to the next generation of leaders in weights and measures. Perhaps you or members of your organizations would be interested in career development or job opportunities at NIST. We would welcome working with you on this.

I applaud the NCWM for your work in developing a new strategic plan, and look forward to engaging with you as this takes shape. Together, we can ensure equity and economic efficiency for all our citizens. 

So, I’d like to leave you with a quote from Charles Dickens. He offered wisdom for life that seems appropriate for those who faithfully serve the public but are sometimes are taken for granted. It should serve you well during both the best and the worst of times: “Do all the good you can and make as little fuss about it as possible.”

I hope you continue having a great meeting, and I look forward to hearing about your ongoing accomplishments.  Thanks to our partners from Canada and other nations for your contributions with us, as well. Thank you all! 

Created July 17, 2019, Updated June 2, 2021