Two questions from a reader have prompted thoughts about the impact on UK trade of the continued use of pound/inch units in the US, and about the future prospects for manufacturing industry.
This query has been received from a reader of Metric Views:
“If Britain were to revert to the exclusive use of Imperial measures, could it actually help trade with the USA, who (sic) uses US customary measures? I know that while I am an US customary/Imperial supporter in the USA, would British goods suffer in the USA if Britain reverted to Imperial units?”
The ‘Review of external trade statistics’ on www.statistics.gov.uk provides information on trade with EU and non-EU countries. It shows that in 2009 the EU accounted for 53.6% of UK trade in goods, both exports and imports. Non-EU countries, including the US, accounted for the balance.
HMRC statistics for general trade are found on www.uktradeinfo.com, and these provide a break down by country. The table for the ‘top 50’ countries shows that in 2009 trade with Germany alone (£64 billion) exceeded that with the US (£62 billion), which represented only 12.2% of UK trade with the ‘top 50’.
It is clear therefore that any reversion to the use of pound/inch units in UK manufacture would not be helpful for UK trade.
A reversion to imperial units for liquid volume would serve no purpose as these are unique to the UK and differ significantly from homonymic US customary units.
The questioner asks if British goods in the USA would suffer if Britain reverted to imperial units. A look at two of the more successful manufacturing companies in the UK indicates that this would be so.
Nissan’s car manufacturing plant in Sunderland is the most productive in Europe, and the second most productive in the world. It exports 85% of its output, some to the USA. High productivity is aided by the ability to source parts and components, metric of course, from around the world.
Rolls Royce in Derby produces, arguably, the best aero engines in the world, fitted to both Airbus and Boeing aircraft – the RR Trent 1000 engine powered the first flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. RR aero engines include components and complete assemblies brought in from plants in the UK and the continent in order to optimise the efficiency of a predominantly metric production process.
Clearly, reversion to a measurement system that is not shared with suppliers would increase costs for both companies, and result in products becoming less competitive.
So if metrication has opened world markets to UK manufacturing and brought efficiencies in production, then why does this sector now form only 12% of the UK economy? The new government is talking of ‘rebalancing the economy’ – will manufacturing be able to make the contribution expected from it?
During the ‘Tonight’ programme on ITV1 on 15 July 2010, Lord Digby Jones, Director of the CBI 2000-06, Minister of State for Trade 2007-08 and on the board of JCB (another successful UK manufacturing company), spoke of ways to increase manufacturing output. He pointed out that the UK can not compete on something that sells on price. He said we need to look for quality, value added and innovation – areas where we can’t be undercut, and for innovative products that others can not make.
But he also said that half the kids who leave school this year will do so without a grade C in maths and English. He quipped, “Half the schools’ input to the world of work is not fit for purpose”.
Sir James Dyson was also interviewed during the programme and echoed some of the points made by Digby Jones. He pointed out that the UK is producing one twentieth of the number of engineers of China or India, and half the engineers of the Philippines or Mexico.
By the time Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, had made his contribution to the programme, speaking of changing the culture in education in favour of maths, physics and engineering and creating a new skills base, the message could not be clearer.
But have not readers of Metric Views heard this before? Remember our article ‘Kids don’t count’ published on 20 May 2010? This suggested that, so long as there is a difference between the measurement units used at school and those on the street and in the home, then this cultural divide will continue, and for many kids the prospect of learning a skill may be far from enticing.
The United States has avoided a divide between school, home and work but at the same time has excluded itself from many world markets by retaining pound/inch units beyond their sell by date. The UK faces the other side of the coin – opportunities for UK manufacturing industry have been created by US inaction but many of these may be lost because too few kids can count.
Both countries need to change. Which will be first?