Measurement skills are used in many industrial sectors from advanced manufacturing, aerospace and automotive, to construction, energy and water treatment. Quantities such as length, mass, power, temperature, radiation and volume ensure quality, maximise efficiency and minimise health and environmental effects. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution has advanced, modern engineering has been able to take advantage of more highly complex production and maintenance systems. But, how do we know how accurate they are?
The UK government’s recently published Delivery Plan (June 2018 – https://is.gd/wequyu) relating to the UK National Measurement Strategy, published in March 2017, states that as processes become more automated, “investment in leading-edge equipment is vital, and this is the same with measuring equipment”. However, it also warns that appropriate practical measurement skills and a thorough understanding of basic measurement concepts “are being lost as the workforce becomes more reliant on automated systems”.
“Large and small companies and organisations are realising that the lack of measurement skills is an issue for their workforce,” the Delivery Plan adds. “The skills challenge lies across the spectrum of education from apprentice programmes to PhD level and beyond into lifelong learning.”
Scott Pepper, sector head for process instrumentation and control at GAMBICA, the trade association for instrumentation, control, automation and laboratory technology in the UK, says that there is a need to have a National Measurement Strategy “to ensure that the importance of measurement is understood”. Without measurement, he adds, “everything we do is unjustified”. “How do we know we are doing the right thing if we have no means of measuring the effects of any work we do?” asks Pepper. “Engineers above all should understand and respect the need for reproducible measurements to ensure that the course of action they are taking is the correct one.”
The National Measurement Strategy highlights how it plans to improve the UK’s measurement skills, via three actions, although precise details have not yet been released:
● Maintaining and developing leadership position in measurement skills through working with end users to establish a national training programme to increase the adoption of measurement skills training for students and CPD of the UK workforce.
● Developing programmes to ensure the transfer of skills between other research communities, industries and national measurement laboratories to aid knowledge sharing, and fellowships to promote and aid partnerships working.
● Maintaining and developing the effective and efficient delivery of user-driven training programme.
Pepper explains that the thorough understanding of measurement concepts may become less common within any given workforce, with increasing reliance on automated systems, but he disagrees with the implication that this is automatically an alarming thought, at least not in every industry and application.
“Rather, I believe that what matters is that the right people have the right skills and knowledge, and that a significant knowledge gap is not allowed to occur between experts and measurement laboratories and the workforce utilising automated measurement systems. It is also imperative that any automated system that may take away the burden of an in-depth understanding can be trusted, and that this trust can be readily justified.
“I would say that measurement has taken a bit of a side line recently, but I don’t think we should be too quick to pin the blame on technology. We need to embrace technological advances and be able to trust this technology, but also maintain an awareness of the measurement principles and methodology behind the technology.”
Learning and retaining
The actions of industry to develop metrology programmes suggests many companies are keen to ensure that their employees learn and retain measurement skills. It is unclear how many training programmes are dedicated or involve measurement, but a new level 3 metrology technician apprenticeship standard (https://is.gd/iledij) has recently been developed and approved for delivery, with various employers involved in creating the standard.
The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has developed a curriculum to support that standard (https://is.gd/nuroho), with EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, becoming a training provider to license and roll it out. The curriculum has been developed to bridge the skills gap for measurement expertise in the UK – to help apprentices gain a more in-depth understanding of measurement and its applications.
Apprentices will learn about understanding measurement units and applications, and identifying measurement needs, how to measure accurately and what can cause uncertain results, mathematical techniques, including statistics, data analysis and measurement calculations, how to use measuring instruments and relevant regulations. It also includes modules using coordinate measuring machines (https://is.gd/yorecu).
Phil Cooper, head of training at NPL, explains: “Measurement underpins such a broad variety of sectors, including the aerospace, automotive and energy industries, so it is extremely important the UK takes hold of this opportunity to build a solid foundation of skills in this field. This will help to prove the worth of our products and services, not only here, but across the international market.”
In addition, an even higher-level standard was approved in August 2018. The Level 5 senior metrology technician apprenticeship standard (https://is.gd/duzaqu) has been created with involvement from several employers, and aims to help learners to apply a measurement strategy and understand its commercial impact; analyse, interpret and evaluate information; participate in and provide advice on activities such as audits and risk assessments; and develop knowledge of the industry, their own organisation and its customers.
Blum-Novotest UK, a manufacturer of measurement and testing devices, is also ensuring staff learn and retain measurement skills. Managing director David Mold admits that the firm has struggled to find the “right people” in the past, so provides staff with training and has its own apprentice, who is training with In-Comm Training.
Companies, from all sectors, can and are taking advantage of more highly technical and complex measuring systems to aid with production and maintenance. However, it also appears that employers, as well as the UK government, are keen to ensure that employees continue to learn, understand, and retain basic and practical measurement skills.
BOX: Metrology is not just about manufacturing
Many may assume that metrology is just for manufacturing, ensuring the quality of products and components. However, metrology also has a place in other sectors.
Andy Augousti, professor of Applied Physics and Instrumentation at Kingston University, gives one example: “Imagine driving down a motorway and seeing the police instructing a lorry to pull into a weighing station to see if it’s overloaded. That weighing station must have been calibrated to make a reliable measurement, so the results back up a prosecution.”
In a bar, if you need a pint, the delivery of the liquid needs to be spot on. Petrol pumps at a petrol station also need to be calibrated in order to guarantee the level of petrol that they are delivering, while the proportion of ingredients in medicine needs to be correct, Augousti adds.
In September, Augousti ran a three-day National Physical Labaratory (NPL) training course on selecting and using different types of instrumentation and sensor systems, with the aim of providing principal knowledge, practical training and measurement best practice for a range of temperature, pressure, electrical, velocity, acceleration and vibration systems.
The course has been going for about seven years.
Although a date for the next course has not yet been set, anyone interested in
attending should keep an eye out on the NPL website at: https://is.gd/wararo.