Measuring, trading and manufacturing

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?

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19 Responses to Measuring, trading and manufacturing

  1. Martin Vlietstra says:

    The use of the metric system was promoted by the CBI in 1965 for the very reason that most of our trading partners were using that system. As the author rightly points out, our trade with Germany is about equal to our trade with the US, while the CIA handbook shows that our exports to France, Netherlands and Ireland are each more than 50% of our American trade.

    Unfortunately the regulations that were introduced from 1965 onwards relegated changes that affected the consumer to the end of the metrication program, by which time there had been a sterling crisis and the anti-metrication lobby (or should I say the Eurosceptic lobby) had turned the man in the street against metrication (though I suspect that 95% don’t care anyway). Thus, rather than building from the bottom upwards, the basis of our manufacturing and engineering industry have, to use a biblical expression, been firmly anchored in sand.

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  2. Jeremiah says:

    The idea that using imperial/USC units in design of products would be a help in selling products in the US is simply not realistic. The US today does very little manufacturing, importing the vast majority of its consumer and industrial goods. If selling only non-metric goods in the US was an important issue then every country that sells goods to the US would be doing that. The facts are they are not.

    Americans buy a plethora of goods from many countries such as China, Japan, Taiwan, India, Germany, France, Italy, and other EU countries, and also from various countries in South America.

    Imported products are almost always metric even if it is hidden. No country is going to run a separate production line to produce metric goods for the world and non-metric goods for the US.

    The person who posed the question obviously is not aware of the fact that the majority of goods and services he/she is buying are in fact metric. Even though the US auto industry has been metric for almost 40 years, many Americans still believe that American produced cars are made using outdated units and many will never be convinced it isn't so.

    I don't encounter British goods either on consumer level or industrial level, so I can't say if it would make a difference or not, but from my experience with products from everywhere else, it won't.

    British and American industry haven't been pushing for the completion of metrication in either country because they simply can go to the remainder of the world to have their products produced in world standard units. Even if in the UK the schools teach metric it doesn't mean the graduates will have a pro-metric attitude. With the media projecting an anti-metric attitude business may feel that investing in the UK would be inefficient and costly, especially if they have to fight an anti-metric attitude. Only those British on the inside instead of the outside looking in are aware of the importance of a fully metric country.

    In my opinion it is really too late for the US to change. It won't reverse the damage already done. The UK is far enough along that it may do some good, especially reverse some attitudes if the remnant incidences of imperial in the markets were removed. Whether it would bring industry back will depend on other factors.

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  3. John Steele says:

    For the US, the I think you have to consider three cases. In two of the cases, Imperial is a problem:
    1) Dual is required or is the prevailing practice: "Consumable" goods, as opposed to durable goods, sold to consumers, generally must declare dual net content, metric and Customary. Without the metric, they are generally not legal. Although not required, many durable goods are also dual labeled.

    2) Customary and Imperial are different: All fluid measure, dry volume measure (bushels, dry quarts, etc), tons, hundredweights, are different in Customary and Imperial. Customary is required and Imperial is not permitted in the net contents area of the principal display panel.

    3) Mass, length, area, and cubic volume measure (eg cubic inches) are identical. As long as metric (dual) isn't required, that would be OK.

    NIST has recently released a recommendation and a study related to permissive metric-only. It still isn't clear that there is a plan to introduce legislation in Congress, but perhaps that is moving again here. However, I don't see much hope for permissive Imperial-only.

    I do buy a few specialty grocery items from British firms. Whether they have their own US operation or use a distributor, they seem to understand and comply with FPLA requirements. Some other countries and products may not. I saw several flavors of jelly/jam from a German manufacturer completely devoid of net content labeling, no Customary and no metric, yet they had a compliant nutrition label. (I think a distributor was meant to affix an additional label and failed to do so).

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  4. michael says:

    A very interesting article, and a link to a fascinating website at the HMRC!

    In the UK, we do have a real problem getting enough kids interested in anything to do with engineering or maths. Science subjects at school seem to have been dumbed down with a general science subject replacing the more specific biology, chemistry or physics. Couple this with the measurement muddle and you can see why some kids are just scared of anything to do with numbers.

    I don't think that there is any question of a return to the Imperial system in industry. I work in food retail, and the cost of change would be astronomical, with no benefit at all. There is no pressure from within that sector for a change to imperial.

    What the UK needs to complete metrication is some sort of popular industry leader eg Sir Richard Branson, Sir James Dyson, etc to come out and tell it like it is - that metric is here, it's best for us and let's finish the job. The whingers in the tabloids and the likes of the Daily Telegraph will always kick up a fuss, but we know that the silent majority are in favour. Has anyone got any suggestions - does the UKMA have anyone like this that could speak on its behalf?

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  5. Jeremiah says:

    In addition to John's comment, even though it is a requirement for consumer products regulated under the FPLA to be dual labeled as far as contents are concerned, there is no requirement for rounded USC.

    Foreign products that are packaged in increments of rounded metric amounts, such as decrements or increments of 1 L or 1 kg may continue to be sold as such. 500 g (1.1 lb) is as acceptable as 453 g (1 lb).

    The problem with labeling for the US market is that the label would not be acceptable in other markets, even Canada. Canada does not require imperial supplementary units and very few, if any, products carry them. However, labels are required to be in both English and French, where French is not a requirement in the US, but many products in the US include Spanish.

    Depending on the product and its origins, the Spanish language instructions and descriptions may be entirely in USC or metric or both but the same instructions in English are usually USC only.

    The requirement for dual units on consumer product labels is only for contents declarations. Instructions may or may not include metric descriptions beyond the contents declarations.

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  6. eric says:

    If I remember correctly most goods displayed in US supermarkets showed USC quantities converted into metric. That approach alienates even metric inclined shoppers without gaining one convert. Who in his right mind would bother to remember, or even look twice at silly metric quantities of 453 g, or 1 quart 1.101 L if all she/he has to remember are simple pounds, pints and ounces.

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  7. John Steele says:

    Eric,

    If by "most" you mean >51%, you are correct. However, perhaps 20% of the items are rounded metric, with "silly looking" Customary conversions. The USMA website has photos of some examples. This category is slowly growing.

    As a technicality, your example of 1.101 L is the wrong conversion (Customary is 946 mL), but in addition, conversions are limited to three significant figures and must be rounded down from the actual fill. There are some manufacturers who get the three-figure rule wrong, however.

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  8. Martin says:

    There's nothing simple about pints and quarts. It depends which ones you're talking about.

    If it was in the USA it could be either 1 quart (0.946 L), or 1 dry quart (1.101 L). But if it was in the UK it would be 1.136 L.

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  9. Ezra Steinberg says:

    The good news in the USA is that many products use a "rational" metric size followed by the USC (US Customary) units in parentheses afterward. This includes some very large companies like Procter and Gamble.

    Once the FPLA (Fair Packaging and Labeling Act) is amended to allow for voluntary metric-only labeling, I predict many manufacturers will drop USC and use rational metric sizes.

    The trick is to get the amendment to the FPLA past Congress. That will not be an easy task, particularly with the current economic climate (which falsely convinces Congress not to change laws for fear of burdening companies) and the irrational opposition of some industry groups like the FMI (Food Marketing Institute).

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  10. eric says:

    John S. "As a technicality, your example of 1.101 L is the wrong conversion (Customary is 946 mL)".

    Well, that just shows how easily antiquated measures are mixed up. Didn't even remember about wet and dry. Who on earth bothers with that anachronism in the simple metric world?

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  11. eric says:

    Martin says:
    2010-07-20 at 16:29
    There’s nothing simple about pints and quarts. It depends which ones you’re talking about.

    Agreed, but no American bothers about British measures if she/he buys a aquart of milk. What is bound to irk them would be metric quantities of
    946 mL replacing 1 quart.

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  12. eric says:

    Ezra Steinberg says:
    2010-07-21 at 05:04
    The good news in the USA is that many products use a “rational” metric size followed by the USC (US Customary) units in parentheses afterward. This includes some very large companies like Procter and Gamble.

    My bet is that rational metric sizing US companies are selling their products world wide and have streamlined their production quantities to increase profits? US only distributors have no reason to do so because that policy might reduce their profits?

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  13. eric says:

    "26 YEARS AFTER HONG KONG STARTED METRICATION, THE HONG KONG SPECIAL ADMINISTRATIVE GOVERNMENT IS LETTING IMPERIAL UNITS CRAWL BACK INTO EVERY ASPECT OF HONG KONG CITIZENS' SOCIAL LIFE: FROM BODY WEIGHT AND HEIGHT TO SUPERMARKET FRESH FOOD SALES, FROM NEWS MEDIA ENTERTAINMENT PROGRAMS TO EVEN GOVERNMENT HOUSING OR LAND SALES, THE HKSAR GOVERNMENT CONTINUES, IRONICALLY, TO ALIENATE ITSELF FROM CHINA AND 98% OF ALL COUNTRIES IN THE WORLD BY LACK OF VISION TO CHAMPION CHANGE AWAY FROM THE IMPERIAL SYSTEM WHICH EVEN THE BRITISH GOVERNMENT HAS SHOWN MORE DETERMINATION TO ABANDON IN EXCHANGE FOR THE MUCH MORE SCIENTIFIC

    Read more: http://oocities.com/yankaic/?201022#ixzz0uO5VIXzG"

    This is a 2009 opinion, but there is no reason to believe it has changed for the better. Maybe that trend has to to with politics and Hong Kong does everything to differentiate itself from Big Brother??

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  14. John Frewen-Lord says:

    This article describes Canada's predicament. The USA is by far Canada's biggest export market, and the volume of trade between the two countries is the largest in the world between any two individual countries. When I workd in Canada in the late 1970s, when Canada's metric conversion was in full swing, the standard construction module was changed from 4 in. to 100 mm. Plywood and drywall (plasterboard) was changed from 1220 x 2440 to 1200 x 2400, and stud spacing to 400 on centre (all houses are stud framed).

    The problem was that the US didn't change of course, and as the US was Canada's biggest export market by far, Canadian manufacturers had to set up parallel production lines. This proved uneconomic, and the metric sizes quietly disappeared, leaving a number of 'orphan' houses built to hard metric modules, and today no way today of procuring hard metric panel sizes when alterations have to be made. The construction industry in Canada wished that the US had gone metric as well, but has to deal with the USC reality.

    Industry, especially the construction industry, in the UK is almost totally metric. That will not change. A whole generation of workers have only ever worked in metric (even if they do use occasional Imperial outside of the workplace). Going Imperial for them is not 'reverting' - it is a whole new experience (and a more difficult one than converting TO metric).

    So for the UK to cater to the US, it will have to do what Canada had to do - set up parallel production lines, as there are far too many metric markets to ignore metric production. If I were in UK manufacturing, I would not bother to cater purely to a US USC market at the expense of my world metric market.

    To revert to Imperial measures, as the questioner has suggested, would remove the one thing the UK still possesses - a world-wide outlook, that other countries do not see as being hostile in terms of doing business with them. To abandon metric would change this - for little advantage. It would send the UK into a downward spiral economically.

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  15. michael says:

    I don't think that there is any real threat of reverting to Imperial in British Industry ie construction, engineering etc.

    The UK's biggest problem with completion of metric is getting the public to think metric outside work. This is isn't helped by the fact that as we share a common language with the USA, the UK broadcasters don't have to dub or subtitle measurements on US TV Shows, of which there is a massive amount on British TV. Any watcher of CSI will know that they constantly refer to imperial measurements as do most UK tv shows - a new prime time quiz called 'The whole 19 yards' is a good example.

    By comparison, in mainland Europe, broadcasters always convert any reference to measurements to metric before broadcasting. Weightwatchers, another US concern, refers to British measurements on its website, and in the home a lot of people refer to feet and inches, stones, pounds and ounces when referring to their own body.

    Interestingly all the TV chefs refer to metric measurements - Delia Smith refused to for a long time but seems to have relented now. All cookery books are metric so I am guessing that most people are happy using metric measurements in the kitchen. It makes it a lot easier when shopping as all of the supermarkets are metric, with very little reference to imperial measurements. There is a move in the UK to rational metric measures, although there was, I believe some restriction as to the pack sizes of certain products which I expect was to prevent unscrupulous producers selling smaller pack sizes of the commodity to customers at the same price as its Imperial predecessor.

    I really don't think that there is any industry pressure to revert to Imperial measures in the workplace - its in the home and on the street that we need to make the transition. In the UK at the moment, any attempt to change the way people do things is immediately attacked as being 'politically correct', 'attacking the British way of life' or 'removal of personal freedom'. That's why I really think we need the help of an independent figure, perhaps like Digby Jones or one of the 'Dragons' Den'.

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  16. A says:

    This is an interesting and informative post. However, is the government aware of any of this? The government wants to tackle debt and the dual system still remains and wasting money, the government should be informed to provide an attractive incentive to fully metricate.

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  17. Harvey says:

    I think that the UK government should allow a free for all, and let everyone revert to Imperial measures. It's what makes Britain stand out from Europe!

    As for the question I posted, while volume measures are different in the US & Britain, they know that our gallon is smaller, they actually know the difference between the two. So again, why really convert, when Britain can go back to Imperial measures, while letting science, technical, industry, and military be metric. All of the United Kingdom needs to re-survey the whole country by putting driver location signs in miles, and for other things, there needs to be more awkward metric packs (ie 227g, instead of 200g or 250g, which are equivalent to 8oz, 7oz, and 8.75oz respectively). This will satisfy the Imperialist. There needs to be more rational Imperial sizes, with irrational metric sizes. I would wonder what it would be like if a British exporter to Australia would label a pint as just simply '568 ml', and not give any rounded numbers. They can use the pint bottle, but relabel it as '568 ml' for Australia, while the UK will get 1 pint (568 ml).

    As for us here in the United States, we need to follow Britain's example of making metric road signs illegal except for four purposes: height, width, length, and weight limits. For those four, a metric only road sign MUST be accompanied by an Imperial only road sign. It's either USC or USC-metric. Not metric only. On the first three purposes, they should be used as 'metric supplementary indications' provided that they are no more prominent than the official Imperial signs.

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  18. John Steele says:

    Harvey,

    You might be on the wrong forum, here.

    As for your US proposals, metrication in the US is excruciating slow, but your proposals would fly in the face of Congress' 1988 declaration that metric is the preferred system of measure in the US, and their Constitutional power to determine the system of weights and measures.

    (I must admit Congress weakened this declaration by some later laws that have have slowed down metrication)

    I was more thinking that every rule or law requiring USC-only should be challenged under the Metric Act of 1866.

    All car manufacturers are fully metric. We wish you customers would learn metric so we could just tell you the height and width of your car in metric and save space in the owners manual. We already make a "kilometers" instrument cluster for Mexico and Canada, we would love to just have one. Did you know that the drawing to show where to put the MPH marks on your speedometer is a metric drawing?

    Oh, and all those cheap imports from China -- they're metric. The reason they provide a tool in the bag for "some assembly required" is that it is metric and they assume you don't have metric tools. They wish you'd learn metric and buy some metric tools.

    You are fighting a losing battle. Even the US economy is no longer healthy enough to support a unique system of measure basically unused in the rest of the world. And US competitiveness in the world economy would improve if we went metric (although we still have other disadvantages with labor cost and over-regulation).

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  19. John Frewen-Lord says:

    "Harvey said:

    I think that the UK government should allow a free for all, and let everyone revert to Imperial measures. It’s what makes Britain stand out from Europe!"

    Well, yes, much like a car with square wheels will stand out from all those with round wheels. It may stand out, but it's going nowhere...

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