Standards and Infrastructure: Foundations of Manufacturing Competitiveness
Arden L. Bement, Jr.
Director, National Institute of Standards and Technology
At first glance, the topic of standards and infrastructure might seem a bit drab. Some of you might even be asking, Why give it equal billing on a marquee devoted to exciting emerging technologies, such as next-generation information technology, nanotechnology, and other candidates for the “next big thing”?
Why, indeed. Well, I am about to assert—and I hope to convince you—that standards, measurements, tests, and the like belong, at least, in the subtitle for every marquee-grade technology and even for technologies that are now commonplace. This technical infrastructure underpins all aspects of manufacturing—from innovation and proof of concept to process development and mastery to supply-chain and marketplace transactions.
The technical infrastructure for current and future manufacturing operations is something we care a great deal about at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). We are a partner to the manufacturing sector, usually a silent one. Often, NIST’s work is done behind the scenes, and the results of this work become embedded inevitably into products and processes.
To manufacture well, and to be at the forefront of technology development and commercialization, you must measure accurately, precisely, and efficiently. Advances in measurement capabilities speed the emergence and eventual maturation of new technologies. For historical perspective, consider the humble gage block. Gage blocks are simply standardized sets of hardened steel blocks of accurately determined thickness. With their introduction early in the last century, manufacturers greatly improved their ability to produce parts within tolerances. This enabled the rise of mass production and interchangeable parts.
Measurements, in turn, are integral to many varieties of so-called documentary standards—those specifying, for example, the dimensions of screw threads, the diameter of optical fibers, the content of steel alloys, information technology interfaces, electromagnetic compatibility requirements, the performance of machine tools or robots, and so on. In specifying characteristics or performance levels, standards promote efficiency in domestic and international markets. By adhering to agreed-upon standards, for example, businesses can negotiate according to widely accepted criteria for products or services, avoiding ambiguities that might otherwise undermine transactions.
Today, standards are so commonplace that they are taken for granted. In some quarters, they are considered to be about as interesting as watching paint dry. In today’s brutally competitive global economy, however, disregard of the importance of standards can be a strategically costly omission. Remove this inconspicuous platform of technical support, and life as we have come to expect it begins to unravel. Laboratories, companies, and entire industries may become less efficient. Transactions may cost more and take longer to conclude. Products may work with a smaller set of other products and services. Markets will fragment. Today, an
estimated 80 percent of world merchandise trade is affected—for good and, sometimes, for bad—by standards and regulations that embody standards. So, standards are fundamental to this nation’s economy and vital to world commerce. In fact, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers ranked the promulgation of standards among the top 10 engineering accomplishments of the last century. Standards shared top-10 honors with such accomplishments as the inventions of the automobile and airplane.
Now, let’s fast forward to the present and begin to contemplate future directions for U.S. manufacturing—within the context of the nation’s technical infrastructure for innovation, for manufacturing, and for global trade. Simply stated, the better this underlying foundation and the more effectively we use it in research, production, and in the marketplace, the brighter are the nation’s prospects for maintaining a vigorous manufacturing sector and for sustaining U.S. leadership in high technology. To be sure, the ingredients of manufacturing competitiveness and economic growth are many, but the quality of our measurement and standards infrastructure ranks high among them.
Consider the intense pressures on existing manufacturers to cut costs, raise quality, and speed product development. Shrinking part and assembly tolerances are a clear physical manifestation of these and other pressures. Over the last half century, dimensional tolerances have decreased tenfold about every decade or so. The push for higher precision and greater accuracy in manufacturing processes is intensifying.
We often hear about the wonders that will be delivered from the bottom up—that is, from the still-emerging capability to build devices molecule by molecule or atom by atom. But high-precision machining processes also are descending onto the realm of nanotechnology. At the same time, large-scale fabrication—from the assembly of jumbo jets to the manufacture of massive earth-moving equipment—is going to dimensional extremes. Today, the longevity and reliability of car engines depend on manufacturing tolerances of a few micrometers—about the width of a single bacterium. In the future, parts manufacturers will, so to speak, be splitting hairs again and again, just as they are in the microelectronics industry.
At NIST, one of our jobs is to help manufacturers achieve smaller, ever-more-exacting tolerances in machining and assembly, which translate into improvements in quality, functionality, efficiency, and productivity. During the 1980s, NIST researchers invented a new type of measurement technology, now known as “laser trackers.” Now common in aircraft manufacturing, these three-dimensional measurement systems literally take laser interferometry to great lengths. State-of-the-art laser trackers can measure parts that are many meters long with an accuracy of about 25 micrometers. This technology is yielding many benefits. In the aerospace industry, the instrument is used to do in-process measurements and to correct machine-tool path errors in real time. With the technology, manufacturers are achieving tighter tolerances and cutting cycle time. In addition, aerospace firms use laser trackers to make digital parts from full-scale models. Companies reportedly save $4.5 million a year in reduced maintenance costs for each master model. The laser tracker illustrates how advances in measurement capabilities, which are then solidified in standards, can help existing manufacturers raise the bar in terms of cost, performance, and quality.
For aspiring industries—such as nanotechnology—new measurement capabilities can help to bridge the difficult gap between tantalizing prospect and affordable, process-ready product. The diverse nanotechnology industry—or industries—that people envision will require the 21st century equivalents of the gage blocks that were part and parcel of the emergence of interchangeable parts and mass production. To deliver on the promise of nanotechnology, we ultimately will need industrial measurement systems that are reliable, fast, and affordable. We have a ways to go, but progress is being made. NIST, for example, is developing atom-based
dimensional standards. We can measure the width of lines by counting the number of atoms across. We have built a laser interferometer that can measure distances in trillionths of a meter. That’s smaller than the diameter of a single atom. And we have demonstrated a repeatable method for writing features with dimensions as small as 10 nanometers on silicon surfaces. This is one of several promising avenues that we are pursing to create new measurement references for manufacturing nanometer-scale devices. And given the tremendous variety of nanotechnology applications on the research horizon, the assortment of measurement references under development at NIST also is diverse. The chemical processing and biotechnology industries, for example, are the intended beneficiaries of a suite of experimental methods for detecting, identifying, and manipulating individual molecules.
In thinking about ways to help U.S. manufacturers separate themselves from the global pack of competitors, we also must consider how best to exploit existing technological strengths. Clearly, the U.S. lead in information technology (IT), although no longer as secure, is a major source of competitive advantage. However, it has yet to be leveraged with full effect. We are, in fact, a long way from realizing the following vision for 21st century manufacturing put forth in a 1995 National Research Council study. I quote:
… interconnecting manufacturing applications will be as simple as connecting household appliances to a power grid—one need only know how to run the application (equivalent to using a microwave oven) and manage the interface (plug it in and press a few buttons).1
This quest, the quest for true IT interoperability, still remains. The ultimate objective may seem a very distant prospect, but we are progressing. And each accomplishment along the way reaffirms the need to persist. I’ll illustrate this with the Standard for the Exchange of Product Model Data—STEP, for short. A still-evolving, international standard, STEP provides a neutral format that enables the exchange of design and other product data between proprietary systems. Think of it as universally understood mechanical drawings for the Information Age. NIST played a key role in the standard’s development, and we continue to contribute to industry-led efforts to broaden its application and usefulness. U.S. industries are saving millions of dollars a year by using STEP to overcome obstacles to exchanging product data within and between companies. Full implementation of STEP across the U.S. manufacturing sector would yield estimated annual saving of almost $1 billion. Efforts to improve interoperability—as well as software reliability, another important issue—will be repaid many times over. So, when we consider how information technology can be used to enhance all facets of manufacturing performance, I suggest that we think big and set ambitious goals.
At NIST, we are collaborating with IT vendors, with manufacturers who use their products, and with standards bodies on the initial stages of a bold interoperability initiative. With our partners, we are exploring the feasibility of developing the standards and other infrastructural elements that enable self-integrating systems. Self-integration would mean that software applications could negotiate meaning on the fly and exchange information in a completely automated way. For a simple analogy, think of the “electronic handshake” that enables fax machines of different vintages to communicate. Of course, many, many others have grand visions of next-generation IT applications in manufacturing. Given the globalization of manufacturing operations, it makes sense to pursue such visions on an international scale. It is also true that the value of information technology increases exponentially as more people
connect. One opportunity for such collaboration is the multinational manufacturing R&D initiative known as Intelligent Manufacturing Systems (IMS). NIST, for example, worked closely with an IMS project that aims to integrate the STEP standard with machine tool control. Projects that span national boundaries provide excellent opportunities to sharpen your global focus on manufacturing systems and processes.
We also must sharpen our focus on standards. Within the business community, there is growing chorus of calls for adoption of globally relevant, internationally recognized standards and elimination of duplicative testing to assess conformance with standards and regulations. Few would argue with this objective unless the resulting standards confer unfair advantage on the technology of foreign competitors. While many U.S. manufacturers and other businesses are alert to this danger, most companies do not participate in the development of standards at home or internationally. While they are idle, these businesses might see the international playing field that we hear so much about begin to tilt away from them, placing them in an uphill struggle for unfettered market access.
I encourage you to learn more about the new standards initiative launched last week by the Department of Commerce. As part of this initiative, the department will host industry-specific roundtables to gather input from companies on the most pressing standards issues and priority foreign markets. I invite the manufacturers here to participate. To ensure the future competitiveness of U.S. manufacturing, we—government and industry—must attend to all the important details.