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Towards a Better Measurement System: Opportunities and Challenges for NIST and the U.S. Metrology Community

Good morning. NIST is proud to be a co-sponsor of this important workshop and symposium.

This morning, I am going to give you a status report on what NIST aims to accomplish in the next few years. It's very important for your plans. It's also very important for NIST to receive your input on the content, quality, and performance of our measurement and standards programs. We value your ideas, and we appreciate the many contributions that NCSL has made to the field of metrology and the practice of measurement.

For example, NCSL's reports on national measurement requirements provide essential feedback to NIST. Your surveys of our calibration-service customers have helped point the way to improvements and ongoing actions that I will talk about.

Another fairly recent development – and a very welcome one – is NCSL's involvement in the documentary standards arena. By developing the American handbook for expressing uncertainty and a U.S. version of ISO Guide 25 for calibration laboratories, NCSL truly is "serving the world of measurement," just like its motto says.

Five Challenges to NIST

NIST's job – our mission – is to promote U.S. economic growth by working with industry to develop and apply technology, measurements, and standards. Our focus is, in a phrase, on infrastructural technology. I have set 5 challenges for NIST.

  • Challenge #1: Ensure that U.S. industry has the best measurements and standards in the world.
  • Challenge #2: Assure that measurement capabilities and standards are in place to support U.S. participation in global markets.

  • Challenge #3: Build greater consensus on the value of NIST's Advanced Technology Program.

  • Challenge #4: Expand access to Manufacturing Extension Partnership services, reach more small and medium-sized companies, and continue federal support for MEP centers after their sixth year of shared funding.

  • Challenge #5: Promote performance excellence in healthcare and education by fostering adoption of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award approach in both sectors.

Challenges to the NIST Laboratories

I want to focus today on the laboratories. The first challenge is maintaining or attaining world leadership for measurements and measurement standards. I think we are expected to perform this role. The United States has the largest and most vibrant economy in the world. To sustain our competitive position, we must have the best measurements and standards in the world.

There has never been a time in which measuring accurately has been more important to a nation's economic health. This is an age in which semiconductor devices shrink to half their previous size every 18 months and measurement advances depend on microscopes that "see" individual atoms. The longevity and reliability of car engines depend upon manufacturing tolerances of micrometers – about the width of a single bacterium. Our global communication systems rely on accurate clocks synchronized to within a millionth of a second. And soon, aircraft landings will be guided by coordinates supplied by global positioning satellites.

NIST conducts research on fundamental measurement techniques and technologies that individual companies typically have neither the technical ability nor the resources to conduct on their own. It is this kind of research that, last year, earned a Nobel Prize for NIST Physicist William Phillips. Bill's work on laser cooling and atom trapping is laying the foundation for next-generation atomic clocks. The Nobel Prize was a tremendous acknowledgment of the scientific value of "basic" metrology research. We were thrilled – for Bill, for NIST, and for the entire measurement community from which he hails.

So, because each company needs these new measurement technologies and standards, once developed, the benefits extend to all. A company paying for such research could not expect to recoup its costs – and it would be paying for research that would benefit not only itself and its customers, but also its competitors.

The returns on this work can be substantial. Consider an assessment of the impact of NIST's calibration of watt hour meters – the devices that track consumption of electric power. NIST provides national reference standards that are needed to assure the accuracy of the electric power meters found in every home and business in the U.S. In supporting the metering of some 200 billion dollars worth of electricity sold each year, NIST generates benefits that exceed program costs by better than 40 to 1.

Our research on alternative refrigerants also has proved to be a high-payoff technology investment. Another economic assessment reported that this work yielded a social rate of return of over 400 percent. In large part, this return reflects cost savings by firms as they scrambled to meet the international deadline for phasing out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons.

Timely delivery of reliable data on alternative refrigerants made the search for CFC replacements more efficient.

The nation's measurement infrastructure is growing in strategic importance. It's easy to understand why. Global market competition is becoming more technology intensive, and trade – especially, exports of high-technology products – is becoming a more significant determinant of economic health.

At the same time, recognition of the pivotal role of measurements is starting to grow. Testing, inspection, and measurement needs are now integral components of an increasing number of technology roadmaps. These include the National Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, the National Electronics Manufacturing Initiative, and the roadmap developed by the U.S. chemical industry within the last year or so.

So our field is finally beginning to get the attention it deserves. At NIST, as we plan for the future, we are asking ourselves four fundamental questions:

  • What measurements and standards are needed by industry now, and what will industry need in the future?
  • How well are we doing in meeting these needs?
  • How does our performance compare to the best in the world?
  • And, what do we need to do to maintain or achieve measurement preeminence?

Technology roadmaps are helping us to get a handle on the first question, but we also are evaluating options for more systematic, NIST-wide approaches to assessing industry's measurement requirements.

To answer the second question – How are we doing? – we need to gather constructive feedback from actual and prospective customers. NCSL has been a valuable source of feedback. The most recent report by your Measurement Requirements Committee has made quite an impact.

Generally, the committee's survey found NIST customers to be satisfied with our technical performance. But dissatisfaction with the service occasionally surfaced – boiled over in some instances. In response, we are reviewing our measurement services with an eye toward improvement in service quality and the efficiency of processes. NIST is benchmarking turn- around times for calibrations in all our laboratories. We also are evaluating several pilot approaches for on-line tracking, which would allow customers to quickly check on the status of their equipment. In addition, we have initiated training in customer service. This is a beginning that we intend to build on.

To answer the third question – How do we stack up against the rest of the world? – we are benchmarking our capabilities against other National Metrology Institutes. On most measures, we compare favorably, achieving world-class and, quite often, best-in-class levels of accuracy. We also documented some weaknesses, however. And, we identified several leading-edge measurement services that are available only through National Metrology Institutes in other countries. All these findings are grist for our strategic planning. We want NIST to be the best in the world in terms of the content and quality of its services.

The final challenge we face is assuring that measurement capabilities and standards are in place to support U.S. participation in global markets. Annual U.S. exports of goods and services now total nearly one trillion dollars. Obviously, exports are crucial to our nation's economy. They account for 12 million jobs.

The value of U.S. exports has been increasing by 9 percent a year, but we could be doing better. Before the financial turmoil in Asia, world trade had been growing at an annual clip of 15 percent. Technical barriers to trade account for a significant fraction of the difference. Onerous testing requirements and complex or inconsistent standards and specifications penalize exporters. At a minimum, they add to the cost of doing business. At worse, they can drive exporters out of foreign markets.

We have a three-pronged strategy to overcoming measurement and standards-related obstacles to trade.

  • First, develop the measurement methods and the international infrastructure needed to ensure that measurements – particularly those needed to support new, high technology products – are available worldwide.
  • Second, develop international standards for new products that do not impede U.S. exports. At the same time, we will work in cooperation with voluntary standards organizations and U.S. regulatory agencies to harmonize standards, codes and regulations so that they can be used effectively in the global market.
  • And third, facilitate access to markets by working with standards, metrology, and trade experts from developing countries to harmonize standards, conformity assessments, and measurement practices.

The one overriding goal is to achieve international uniformity of measurements. Equivalence of national measurements greatly reduces the challenge of achieving world-wide acceptance of testing and measurement services.

But even as we pursue this critical goal of international uniformity, we must also concern ourselves with objectives that are more tactical in nature. I'm referring primarily to mutual recognition agreements, or MRAs.

In November, I signed an agreement with members of the Asia Pacific Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation. This agreement recognizes the technical equivalence of test reports and calibration certificates issued by accredited laboratories in the United States and five other members of APEC – the organization for Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. The other signers were Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taipei. The agreement recognizes laboratories accredited by NIST's National Voluntary Laboratory Accreditation Program – or NVLAP – and by the private sector's A2LA -–- the American Association for Laboratory Accreditation. It affects several billion dollars in U.S. exports.

In Europe, progress has been slower. Some might even say, "painfully slow." But we are continuing to hammer out the details of a similar recognition agreement with the 17 members of the European Cooperation for Accreditation, which also is known as EA. After several delays, EA is now scheduled to conduct its on-site review of NVLAP and A2LA in September of this year. I know this is a matter of considerable interest to many of you, and we hope the pace of progress will increase. If things go well, we could hope for a final agreement by next June.

Peter Heydemann, NIST's director of Technology Services – our focal point for standards- related activities – will be updating you on the status of the Mutual Recognition Agreement signed by the United States and the European Union last May. I should mention, however, that NIST intends to support efforts to expand the agreement to include instrumentation, which is a priority of the Transatlantic Business Dialog.

In the meantime, we are proceeding with a study to determine whether all the necessary measurement capabilities are in place to support mutual acceptance of calibration results. This entails comparing NIST's capabilities with those of its European counterparts in the six product areas targeted in the agreement. This approach, we believe, is the best way to ensure integrity in mutual recognitions. You can track the status of this important exercise on the Internet. The NIST home page on the World Wide Web contains a directory of international comparisons – completed, under way, and planned.

We also have set up a toll-free number for companies and other organizations to report measurement problems encountered while doing business in Europe. We especially want to hear from American companies that have been required to repeat a measurement in the EU or have it conducted solely by an EU member laboratory because U.S. measurements were unacceptable. If you have a pen and want to jot down the number here it is: 888-59-1Test, or 888-591-8378.

In the Western Hemisphere, efforts toward regional cooperation in metrology are making headway. There are several activities worth mentioning. For example, NORAMET, which involves the United States, Canada, and Mexico, is progressing toward measurement equivalence agreements in nine specific fields. And the NACC – the North American Calibration Cooperation Committee – is laying the foundation for mutual acceptance of calibrations performed by accredited laboratories in the three countries. We expect an agreement to be concluded in early 1999.

Ultimately, we hope that these arrangements will be superseded by the Inter-American Metrology System, which goes by the acronym of SIM, and by an emerging accreditation system that serves the entire market of the Americas. NCSL has helped to further the evolution of this much needed regional metrology system, which encompasses 34 countries. By generously providing its publications on calibrations and measurement methods, NCSL is familiarizing our Western Hemisphere neighbors with U.S. approaches to metrology.

National Recognition of Accreditors

Also on the laboratory-accreditation front, NACLA – the National Cooperation for Laboratory Accreditation – is beginning to take shape. Ably represented by Tony Anderson, NCSL has been deeply involved in this venture to create a national infrastructure for laboratory accreditation. This infrastructure will eliminate much of the duplicative accrediting that testing and calibration laboratories must now endure -- not to mention, pay for. It also will further the objective of "tested once, accepted everywhere."

NIST has been spearheading this effort with ANSI and ACIL , a trade association representing independent testing laboratories. Besides NCSL, organizations represented on NACLA's interim board include the American Industrial Hygiene Association, Ford, Lucent, Caterpillar, the National Sanitary Foundation International, and others. Private sector leadership is essential, but so is government involvement. Many of our trading partners are reluctant to accept reports issued by laboratories that do not operate within some kind of government-backed framework.

Support for NACLA is strong, and we are committed to getting it up and running. NIST is providing start-up funds to NACLA, and we are providing office space while NACLA is getting established.

International Standards

The proliferation of international documentary standards is a another reality of global commerce and competition. The United States has yet to fully wake up to this reality. The European Community, in contrast, has an explicit policy to promote the adoption of standards that "give preference to the European approach at the world level." Currently, Europe's major standards bodies are generating new standards at the rate of about five per working day. And a substantial fraction of this output becomes ISO or IEC standards.

The implications are great for our economy. My colleagues at the Department of Commerce estimate that standards directly affect at least $150 billion in U.S. exports, and that they serve as trade barriers for an additional $20 billion to $40 billion worth of exports. According to another estimate, international standards now account for about 45 percent of the standards used by U.S. industry. In 1970, that share was about 10 percent.

Some U.S. companies and industry organizations are acutely aware of the strategic importance of international standards issues. The great majority are not. These companies are surrendering decision-making authority on standards that may ultimately affect the performance of their businesses. This needs to change. We must step up our efforts to include U.S. concepts and technology in international standards. U.S. industry must become a constructive force in the standards arena.

Getting organized is a key first step for our uniquely American standards system. Unlike most other nations, the United States does not have a private sector organization or government agency that has overriding responsibility for standards. We have more than 600 standards development organizations – or SDOs. These voluntary organizations have done their job well, and some have developed standards that are used in scores of nations.

In all countries, not just the United States, industry wants standards that enable companies to build products that are accepted worldwide. This, of course, also requires international acceptance of product testing done in the manufacturing nation. The U.S. standards community needs, in many cases, to work together more effectively to resolve our differences with one another to achieve a unified U.S. approach in international standards setting.

NIST is fully committed to support private sector organizations and federal agencies in efforts to eliminate standards-related trade barriers in international trade. I have personally pledged NIST's efforts to work with the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM), the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) and other standards-developing organizations as we sort through these difficult issues. It is a high priority for us.

We will host a summit on international standards issues in Washington on World Standards Day. That's Wednesday, September 23. The upcoming summit will be a forum for representatives of standards-developing organizations, industry, consumers, government, and other stakeholder groups. This is a beginning toward the ultimate goal of crafting a reasonable plan for an effective national strategy to meet global goals in both standards and conformity assessment.

I think this strategy has to be led by the private sector. I see NIST's role as encouraging the development of the strategy.

I invite NCSL to participate. Your organization represents a sizable portion of our nation's measurement infrastructure, and you are well qualified to address many of the challenges and concerns in the areas of documentary standards, conformity assessment, and accreditation. I encourage NCSL to be involved – and to be an active partner in efforts to eliminate standards- and measurement-related barriers to open, efficient global trade.

Information Technology and Metrology Partnerships

The standards and measurement community, I believe, is standing at a threshold of cooperative opportunities.

In particular, I would like to suggest that we as a community take a comprehensive look at how we might use information technology to accomplish our objectives.

Let me tell you about a few projects we've started at NIST.

One project aims to build a Calibration-Web – an Internet-enabled framework for remote calibration, traceability, and accreditation of laboratories that test gas flow meters. Essentially, the goal is to create the equivalent of "portable primary standards."

The secondary metrology laboratory that serves as the pilot for this project is a facility operated by the Colorado Engineering Experiment Station – or CEESI, which is located in Nunn, Colorado. It will be outfitted with redundant pressure, temperature, and time sensors, which will be calibrated against NIST primary standards according to a statistically determined schedule. Via the Internet, NIST personnel will be able to certify that the remote facility is capable of delivering the quoted uncertainty.

For remote calibration purposes, a key piece of technology yet to come is an instrument for determining the flow profile entering the meter-under-test. This technology is under development. We are working with a Houston-based company, Daniel Industries, to develop a novel ultrasonic flow meter that will be positioned upstream from the meter-under-test. We also are working on the fluid dynamics models, pattern recognition algorithms, and other elements that will enable high-accuracy tele-calibration of flow meters. And, of course, we also are addressing issues regarding the encryption and security of control and data packets. We expect that the entire package of technologies and the underlying information infrastructure will enable us to demonstrate NIST-certified calibrations over the World Wide Web – perhaps, by 2001, our centennial year.

A more immediate prospect is the Web-based delivery of our testing service for the form- fitting software used in coordinate measuring machines and related equipment. This service – the NIST Algorithm Testing and Evaluation Program – identifies data-analysis errors and estimates their contribution to overall measurement uncertainty. We expect the move to the Internet will significantly reduce turnaround times and customer costs.

Finally, I want to mention that we also are evaluating the Internet as a vehicle for delivering metrology training and education. Right now, we are thinking about an initiative that would link NIST to other National Metrology Institutes in the evolving Inter-American Metrology System – or SIM, which I mentioned earlier. For starters, we are contemplating establishing reasonably high-speed links with NMIs in about 10 SIM nations. At first, we would focus on providing information and training support for calibrating a subset of measurement standards, such as mass and the basic electrical units.

By means of cameras, reasonably high-speed links, electronic notebooks, and other tools, NIST staff members could provide direct, hands-on advice to their counterparts in Latin America. This idea, I think, has lots of potential. It could be the mortar that solidifies our visions of a unified measurement system for the Americas.

This is only a sampling of the opportunities that NIST is exploring. I invite you, the members of NCSL, to join us in this exploration and in the pursuit of a 21st century measurement system that is significantly better than today's.

Thank you. I'd be happy to answer any questions that you may have.

Created October 16, 2009, Updated June 2, 2021