Metrology is defined by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures (BIPM) as "the science of measurement, embracing both experimental and theoretical determinations at any level of uncertainty in any field of science and technology."
Metrology is a very broad field and may be divided into three subfields:
A core concept in metrology is (metrological) traceability, defined as "the property of the result of a measurement or the value of a standard whereby it can be related to stated references, usually national or international standards, through an unbroken chain of comparisons, all having stated uncertainties." The level of traceability establishes the level of comparability of the measurement: whether the result of a measurement can be compared to the previous one, a measurement result a year ago, or to the result of a measurement performed anywhere else in the world.
Traceability is most often obtained by calibration, establishing the relation between the indication of a measuring instrument and the value of a measurement standard. These standards are usually coordinated by national laboratories: National Institute of Standards and Technology (USA), National Physical Laboratory, UK, etc.
Mistakes can make measurements and counts incorrect. If there are no mistakes, all counts will be exactly correct. Even if there are no mistakes, nearly all measurements are still inexact. The term 'error' is reserved for that inexactness, also called measurement uncertainty. Among the few exact measurements are:
• The absence of the quantity being measured, such as a voltmeter with its leads shorted together: the meter should read zero exactly.
• Measurement of an accepted constant under qualifying conditions, such as the triple state point of pure water: the thermometer should read 273.16 Kelvin (0.01 degrees Celsius, 32.018 degrees Fahrenheit) when qualified equipment is used correctly.
• Self-checking ratio metric measurements, such as a potentiometer: the ratio is between steps is independently adjusted and verified to be beyond influential inexactness.
All other measurements either have to be verified to be sufficiently correct or left to chance. Metrology is the science that establishes the correctness of specific measurement situations. This is done by anticipating and allowing for both mistakes and error. The precise distinction between measurement error and mistakes is not settled and varies by country. In the United States, little time is spent on philosophical analysis. Instead, the Gage Repeatability and Reproducibility (GR&R) Study has become the principal method for isolating error from mistakes.
Calibration is the process where Metrology is applied to measurement equipment so that the desired situation will be recreated. Some contend that Statistical Process Control (SPC) is one mechanism for dealing with measurements otherwise left to chance for any of several reasons.
Metrology laboratories are places where both metrology and calibration work are performed. Calibration laboratories generally specialize in calibration work only.
Both Metrology and Calibration laboratories must isolate the work performed from influences that might affect the work. Temperature, humidity, vibration, electrical power supply, radiated energy and other influences are often controlled. Generally, it is the rate of change or instability that is more detrimental than whatever value prevails.
Calibration technicians execute calibration work. In large organizations, the work is further divided into 3 groups:
• Set-up people, who arrange the equipment needed for calibration and verify that it works correctly.
• Operators, who execute the calibration procedures and collect data.
• Tear-down people, who dismantle set-ups, check the components for damage and the put the components into a stored state. This is the entry-level position for people who didn’t start in the equipment warehouse or transportation functions.
Alternately, the technicians can be divided by major discipline areas: physical, dimensional, electrical, RF, microwave and so on. But the principles are the same regardless of the equipment.
Metrology technicians perform investigation work in addition to calibrations. They also apply proven principles to known situations and evaluate unexpected or contradictory results.
Specific education in metrology was formerly limited to sub-professional work. Most of the branches of the US Military train ‘enlisted-grade’ technicians to meet their specific needs. Large industrial organizations also develop people who demonstrate aptitude in testing functions. When this is combined with an engineering degree, it qualifies the person as a Metrology Engineer. Over the last 15 years, Universities such as the University of North Carolina created a specific curriculum in Metrology Engineering. In England, Metrology was part of the fifth year of some undergraduate engineering programmes.
Metrologists are people who perform metrology work at and above the technician levels, generally without the benefit or acknowledgement of a college degree.
The metrology and calibration work described above is always accompanied by documentation. The documentation can be divided into two types; one related to the task and the other related the administrative program. Task documentation includes Calibration Procedures and the data collected. Administrative program documentation includes equipment identification data, 'calibration certificates’, calibration time interval information and 'as-found' or 'out-of-tolerance' notifications.
Administrative programs provide standardization of the metrology and calibration work and make it possible to independently verify that the work was performed. Generally, the administrative program is specific to the organization performing the work and addresses customer requirements. General administrative program specifications created by industry groups, such as the ANS (ANSI) Z540 series may also be covered in the administrative program. Other specifications created by the US Food and Drug Administration, US Federal Aviation Administration or other agencies would supplement or replace ANS Z540 for work performed in their domains. Often administrative programs can be as complicated and detailed as the measurement work itself.
An administrative program that has insufficient actual metrology or calibration capability is derisively referred to as a "lick and stick" program.
Sufficiently correct measurements are essential to commerce. About nine out of every ten people working in metrology specialize in commercial measurement, most at the technician level. Correct measurements are beneficial to manufacturing, but other methods are available and sometimes are more appropriate.
Metrology has thrived at the interface between science and manufacturing. Aerospace, commercial nuclear power, medicine, medical devices and semiconductors rely on metrology to translate theoretical science into mass produced reality.
The basic concepts of metrology are deceptively simple. Metrology is seldom recognized for its significance and is rarely taught in a systematic manner above the technician level. Within most businesses, metrology core beliefs such as recording all setups and observations for possible future reference are opposed to the general business practice of minimizing recordkeeping to limit litigation effects.
The nature of engineering and engineering education in general is changing. Judgment development will replace skills conclusively yielded to computers between 1960 and 2000. Hopefully, metrology will take its rightful place in judgment development in the future.
Standards are objects or ideas that are designated as being authoritative for some accepted reason. Whatever value they possess is useful for comparison to unknowns for the purpose of establishing or confirming an assigned value based on the standard. The design of this comparison process for measurements is metrology. The execution of measurement comparisons for the purpose of establishing the relationship between a standard and some other measuring device is calibration.
The ideal standard is independently reproducible without uncertainty. This is what the creators of the 'metre' length standard were attempting to do in the 19th century. Later, we learned that the Earth’s surface is a terrible basis for a standard. The Earth is not spherical and it is constantly changing in shape. But the special alloy metre/meter bars that were created and accepted in that time period standardized international length measurement until the 1950s. Careful calibrations allowed tolerances as small as 10 parts in 1 million to be distributed and reproduced in metrology laboratories worldwide, regardless of whether the rest of the metric system was implemented and in spite of the shortfalls of the metre/meter’s original basis.
The inhabitants of the Indus Valley Civilization (c. 3000–1500 BCE, Mature period 2600–1900 BCE) developed a sophisticated system of standardization, using weights and measures, evident by the excavations made at the Indus valley sites. This technical standardization enabled gauging devices to be effectively used in angular measurement and measurement for construction. Calibration was also found in measuring devices along with multiple subdivisions in case of some devices.
Metrology has existed in some form or another since antiquity. The earliest forms of metrology were simply arbitrary standards set up by regional or local authorities, often based on practical measures such as the length of an arm. The earliest examples of these standardized measures are length, time, and weight. These standards were established in order to facilitate commerce and record human activity.
Little progress was made with regard to proto-metrology until various scientists, chemists, and physicists started making headway during the scientific revolution. With the advances in the sciences, the comparison of experiment to theory required a rational system of units, and something more closely resembling modern metrology began to come into being. The discovery of atoms, electricity, thermodynamics, and other fundamental scientific principles could be applied to standards of measurement, and many inventions made it easier to quantitatively or qualitatively assess physical properties, using the defined units of measurement established by science.
Modern metrology has its roots in the French Revolution, with the political motivation to harmonize units all over France and the concept of establishing units of measurement based on constants of nature, and thus making measurement units available "for all people, for all time". In this case deriving a unit of length from the dimensions of the Earth, and a unit of mass from a cube of water. The result was platinum standards for the meter and the kilogram established as the basis of the metric system on June 22, 1799. This further led to the creation of the Système International d'Unités, or the International System of Units. This system has gained unprecedented worldwide acceptance as definitions and standards of modern measurement units. Though not the official system of units of all nations, the definitions and specifications of SI are globally accepted and recognized. The SI is maintained under the auspices of the Metre Convention and its institutions, the General Conference on Weights and Measures, or CGPM, its executive branch the International Committee for Weights and Measures, or CIPM, and its technical institution the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, or BIPM.
As the authorities on SI, these organizations establish and promulgate the SI, with the ambition to be able to service all. This includes introducing new units, such as the relatively new unit, the mole, to encompass metrology in chemistry. These units are then established and maintained through various agencies in each country, and establish a hierarchy of measurement standards that can be traced back to the established standard unit, a concept known as metrological traceability. The U.S. agencies holding this responsibility are the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
In addition to standards created by national and international standards organizations, many large and small industrial companies also define metrology standards and procedures to meet their particular needs for technically and economically competitive manufacturing. These standards and procedures, while drawing in part upon the national and international standards, also address the issues of what specific instrument technology will be used to measure each quantity, how often each quantity will be measured, and which definition of each quantity will be used as the basis for accomplishing the process control that their manufacturing and product specifications require. Industrial metrology standards include dynamic control plans, also known as “dimensional control plans”, or “DCPs”, for their products.
In industrial metrology, several issues beyond accuracy constrain the usability of metrology methods. These include
The basic 'lineage' of measurement standards are:
Theoretically, metrology, as the science of measurement, attempts to validate the data obtained from test equipment. Though metrology is the science of measurement, in practical applications, it is the enforcement, verification and validation of predefined standards for precision, accuracy, traceability, and reliability.
(Fundamentals of Dimensional Metrology, Ted Busch, Wilkie Bros Foundation, Delmar Publishers, ISBN 0-8273-2127-9)
These standards can vary widely, but are often mandated by governments, agencies, and treaties such as the International Organization for Standardization, the Metre Convention, or the FDA. These agencies promulgate policies and regulations that standardize industries, countries, and streamline international trade, products, and measurements. Metrology is, at its core, an analysis of the uncertainty of individual measurements, and attempts to validate each measurement made with a given instrument, and the data obtained from it. The dissemination of traceability to consumers in society is often performed by a dedicated calibration laboratory with a recognized quality system in compliance with such standards. National laboratory accreditation schemes have been established to offer third-party assessment of such quality systems. A central requirement of these accreditations is documented traceability to national or international standards.
Some common standards include:
Every country maintains its own metrology system. In the United States, the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) plays the dual role of maintaining and furthering both commercial and scientific metrology. The NIST does not enforce measurement accuracy directly.
The accuracy and traceability of commercial measurements is enforced per the laws of the individual states. Commercial measurement generally involves any material sold by any unit of measure. Some intuitive or obvious measurement is generally exempted, such as selling cloth on a cutting table that has a yardstick fastened to it. All counting-based transactions are generally exempt also. But each state has its own rules, responding to the accumulated concerns of the state residents.
Commercial metrology is also known as "weights and measures" and is essential to commerce of any kind above the pure barter level. Every state maintains its own weights and measures functionality with traceability to the national standards maintained by NIST. Large states further divide this effort by county, where a "Sealer" or other appointee is responsible for the validity of most common commercial measurements such as mass balances (scales) in grocery stores and gasoline pump measurements of volume. The sealer's staff and agents make periodic inspections to catch merchant cheaters, maintaining the integrity of commercial measurements.
Depending on the specific state, other state government agencies can be involved. For example, electricity watt-hour meters and water delivery flow meters are commonly monitored by the state's "public utilities commission" who enforces the measurement tolerances and traceabiity to NIST through the utility providers. Highway State Police and the State Highway Department generally run the commercial truck mass measurement programs for safety purposes and to minimize the damage to road surfaces that overloaded trucks cause. Nearly all states license weighmasters, weighmistresses, scale calibrators and other specialists involved in commercial measuring equipment maintenance.
The term "commercial metrology" is also used to describe calibration laboratories that are not owned by the companies they serve.
Scientific metrology addresses measurement phenomena not quantified in ordinary commerce, such as the test bed pictured at the beginning of the article. Calibration laboratories that serve scientific metrology are regulated as businesses only. They may choose to have their work accredited by voluntary certification organizations based on customer desires, but there is no requirement to do so. Irresolvable disputes involving scientific metrology are generally settled in the civil court systems. Some federal government entities like the Federal Communications Commission and the Environmental Protection Administration are considered to be the final authority in their domains rather than the NIST. Disputes involving only metrology issues with those organizations probably would not be heard in any courts.