Measuring up to a wider industrial role

The National Physical Laboratory aims to forge better links with UK industry by offering its facilities for research. Fiona Harvey reports.

Most people in this country must be unaware of its existence, let alone aware that they are paying for it. But the UK’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) is a national treasure.

The NPL is the UK’s national standards laboratory, funded by the DTI. It carries out research to ensure that the UK maintains measurement standards and facilities for physical quantities, like mass, length, time, temperature and so on. This is important so that we can all be sure we’re working to the same standards as other countries and their industrial bases.

Making sure that we all agree on how long a metre is will hardly set anybody’s mind on fire. Yet the work of the NPL is far from dull, and can benefit industry in myriad ways of which many engineering companies remain unfortunately ignorant.

The NPL carries out a large number of research projects on behalf of industry, and can be called upon by commercial organisations to solve problems that they would otherwise find too expensive to tackle. This year it plans to publicise this important role further, to cement its position at the core of the UK’s engineering industry. That should bring its services to even more companies.

There are numerous examples of successful NPL collaborations that have given engineering companies access to services and equipment that would otherwise remain beyond their reach. Take, for example, the NPL Technology Applied scheme. This will initiate the use of a hallmark emblem for companies’ products, along the lines of Intel Inside on computers. It will show the NPL’s intervention in calibrating and improving the precision and utility of their products.

And how about development of the solid state ultrasonic power meter, undertaken by the NPL alongside Precision Acoustics of Dorchester? The collaboration has made it possible for physiotherapists to provide patients with more effective and safer ultrasound treatment.

Or what of Southern Scientific, which provides instruments for medical and physical research? The company liaised with the NPL to improve the interface of its ionising chamber, used to measure the dose of a radiopharmaceutical, with a direct reading electrometer to make the chamber more user-friendly. The enhanced product resulting from the partnership is now used in hospitals across the world.

The NPL does a lot of work on calibration, making sure complex engineering instruments are true and agree with one another. It possesses numerous expensive pieces of equipment for this purpose, and the expertise to use them properly. These services can be found in the commercial world, but they are costly.

The NPL undertook a project whereby it invited several small engineering companies to use its calibration technology to check and improve the calibration of their own instruments. The result was that the companies could have much greater precision in all their production. That brought them clear benefits in the services that they could offer their customers, and improved their competitiveness.

Without the NPL’s intervention the services would have been well beyond the means of these companies. The project is estimated to have generated more than £1 million in savings and extra revenues for the companies involved. It represents a stride forward for the NPL.

For many years the institution saw itself merely as the guardian of our measurements, the UK authority for standards governing physical qualities. But little more.

Now the NPL is seeking to build on that heritage to extend its role within industry, going far beyond mere measurement to become a national facility that will improve our engineering and industrial base.

As the UK’s engineering industry tries to compete on a more difficult international stage, where the work grows ever more complex and precise, and where firms face additional problems with under-investment and a lack of confidence, this facility should be seen as the treasure that it is.

The NPL deserves recognition within British industry for its efforts, and should be more widely used. Holding the gold standard for measurements requires a sizeable amount of engineering skill and knowledge, but that skill and knowledge can find other applications.

The NPL is eager to ensure that it gives an ever greater service to British industry. It has to, to impress its paymasters in the government and earn its keep. So engineering companies should forge closer links with the NPL. It’s worth it. And as you’re already paying for it through taxes, you might as well use it.

Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times