The Office of Reference Materials (ORM) is the unit within the Material Measurement Laboratory (MML) that provides the marketing, sales, and distribution of all the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) standard reference materials (SRMs) and standard reference instruments (SRIs). The office conducts all business-related functions to support this mission for NIST. These include the administration, product packaging, customer and technical support, quality control and assurance, management of e-commerce infrastructure, and all related documentation associated with SRMs and SRIs. Customers use NIST SRMs to support measurements in industrial manufacturing processes, clinical genomics, environmental analysis, health measurements, and basic measurements in science and metrology. Industry adoption and reference to NIST SRMs is a vitally important mechanism for supporting measurement traceability in the United States. The ORM currently offers a catalog of approximately 1,200 SRMs that possess well-characterized and well-needs to bedocumented composition and properties. ORM customers purchase these products to perform instrument calibrations, verify the accuracy of specific measurements, and support the development of new measurement methods as part of their overall quality assurance programs. The ORM client base includes industry, academia, and government. The ORM bins their SRMs into 31 separate categories including environmental, metals, high-purity materials, fuels, forensics, health and clinical, and industrial hygiene. The ORM has a very important and public-facing role for NIST that enables the organization to fulfill its measurements and standards mission.
The organization of the ORM resembles a structure similar to an e-commerce organization. The office director and staff provide oversight of all ORM operations and group activities and serve as the primary interface with the MML division chiefs to construct and execute the SRM development strategy. The division director also administers the service development (SD) and working capital funds (WCFs) that support the creation and production of new SRM product offerings. Several groups in the ORM report to the office director, including the Business Application Development, Support, and Security Group (BADSS), which oversees sales, cataloging, and inventory systems and is responsible for cybersecurity and compliance with all applicable Department of Commerce (DOC) and federal government regulations regarding the use of information technology (IT) for sales and support of the SRM program; the Materials and Physical Services Group, which is responsible for sample and product preparation, homogenization, packaging, order support, and shipping of all SRM products; the Sales and Customer Services Group, which manages customer orders received by phone, e-mail, Internet, and fax, and is also assigned matters and country-specific requirements pertaining to export requirements associated with international sales; the Publication and Web Services Group, which has the responsibility for all documentation of products, including SRM certificates contained on the NIST SRM website, and also for maintaining expertise in the accurate labeling of ORM products and conformity to the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) rules for labeling hazardous materials; and the Business and Quality Management Group, which oversees and implements quality processes that document the quality system, produces quality reports (quarterly) to the NIST quality manager, and maintains ORM adherence to ISO 9001.
ASSESSMENT OF TECHNICAL PROGRAMS
Due to the nature and mission of the ORM, the assessment of its technical programs needs to adopt a different lens from those used to examine the MML research divisions. The office largely functions as a self-supporting e-commerce activity housed within a research organization. The organization of the ORM, its staff, and its facilities are structured to efficiently and effectively produce, maintain, sell, and ship SRMs and SRIs. Its scientific and technical programs associated with the development of new SRMs and production of existing SRMs are performed in partnership with NIST research entities in the MML. The metrics used for assessing its activities necessarily need to be different from those used to assess the research divisions.
Using these measures, the ORM can list a number of accomplishments that are aligned with its mission and programmatic goals. The number of sales of SRM products totals approximately 32,000 units per year, resulting in roughly $19.5 million in income. The sales group of six people and one group leader fields more than 50,000 customer inquiries per year, including requests for quotes and technical information. The top five sales products include the following: 2092 Low-Energy Charpy V-Notch, 2096 High-Energy Charpy V-Notch, 1196 Standard Cigarette for Ignition Resistance, 84L Potassium Hydrogen Phthalate, and 1849A Infant/Adult Nutritional Formula. The customer base for ORM products consists of 50.1 percent U.S. industry; 43.5 percent international industry; 2.3 percent U.S. federal government; and 2.7 percent state and local governments across all major industrial sectors. International sales have been increasing steadily and now account for nearly half of all sales. The customer satisfaction appears high, as exemplified by the fact that less than 0.5 percent of items sold are returned for any reason.
Proper labeling and hazard assessment for ORM products is a significant and important technical responsibility of the office. The shipped products need to comply with the GHS for labeling materials. Further, this new regulation requires that the staff of the ORM publications and Internet services also maintains expertise in these labeling requirements. The ORM deployed two of its Ph.D. inorganic chemists and an expert in Department of Transportation (DOT) regulations to produce new GHS-compliant labels for over 800 products.
The ORM conducts an extensive quality assurance program to support its operations. It has appropriately deployed the necessary staff and processes in their organization to make its quality assurance programs successful. The quality assurance program is extensive and extends to every facet of the operations. The group is ISO 9001 certified and well connected to the NIST-wide Quality Manager.
Opportunities and Challenges
The group is highly focused, customer-centric, and very aligned with NIST’s fundamental mission. Its SRM products are valued by industry customers and directly contribute to U.S. commerce. The truth in a bottle that is produced by the ORM through its SRM portfolio provides the necessary market confidence in the production and sale of products across nearly every sector of the economy and has worldwide impact. The interfaces to NIST research divisions provide access to measurement science capabilities that are among the best in the world, as well as the ability to create new reference methods (RMs) as they are needed by industry. Further, the team recognizes the ORM’s growth in international sales and has identified opportunities to partner with licensed distributors to better serve these customers in more effective and efficient ways. The office also uses its ability as a convener to bring industry interests together to solve common issues facing a specific product type or measurement need, as exemplified by the work performed on infant nutritional formula SRMs.
At the same time, the ORM faces several challenges and possible risks. For example, the office receives the vast majority of its sales from a very small number of products (Charpy Bars, Standard Cigarettes, Potassium Hydrogen Pthalate, etc.). Any significant disruption in demand for these popular
products will have an adverse effect on the operations of the ORM, and more importantly, on the ability to develop new SRMs for emerging industries and applications. This risk is accompanied by the fact that the current allocation of WCFs and service development (SD) funding given to the research divisions is already limited and increasingly used to support recertification of existing products versus developing new SRMs.
The ORM appears to be a highly successful operation that directly supports the mission of NIST and U.S. commerce overall. Yet, the ORM operates much differently from the other units within MML and NIST overall. It does not conduct the type of research performed by MML divisions, and the majority of ORM work involves managing and maintaining the SRM sales business that includes marketing, production, sales, quality control, e-commerce, packaging, and distributions. The emerging partnership with the University of Maryland (UMD) and similar efforts with other external institutions to examine marketing and customer engagement strategies is laudable. At the same time, the ORM needs to consider an external examination of its overall business practices, the adequacy of its e-commerce tools, the effectiveness of its marketing and sales operations, and other pertinent areas related to its operations.
The current allocation of WCFs and service development funds is increasingly assigned to support recertification and production of existing product lines. This situation may present a risk to ORM and its ability to produce new materials needed by emerging applications and industrial sectors. The MML needs to develop a strategy to optimize and prioritize the balance between existing product support and the research, production, and certification of new SRMs within the ORM.
Packaging and distribution is a significant portion of ORM operations. Appropriate packaging, handling, and long-term storage of SRM materials are critical to the ORM mission. Existing capabilities are being stretched to their limit, and in some cases may not be adequate for anticipated product offerings. In particular, biomaterial SRMs will have unique and important shelf-life considerations that need to be examined for these products. The MML needs to undertake an effort to benchmark the state of the art in industrial packaging and storage methods and develop a packaging modernization plan to support the ORM catalog of materials.
PORTFOLIO OF SCIENTIFIC EXPERTISE
The portfolio of expertise of the ORM is aligned with its mission as a stand-alone business unit and is not easily compared to other MML divisions. Of the 38 staff members in the ORM, 34 percent are scientists, 24 percent are technicians, and 34 percent provide administrative or other program support. And so, the majority of ORM staff cannot be measured using similar metrics or measures. At the same time, the scientific and technical staff housed in the ORM work closely with peers in research divisions to produce and document existing SRMs and perform the necessary research and measurements to create new SRM products as they are needed by industrial customers. By all indications, the ORM technical staff is highly qualified, enthusiastic, and able to perform its jobs very well. This interface is important and provides a significant link between the research divisions. It also provides an important mechanism for NIST to have a positive impact on industrial commerce through measurement science and standards.
Opportunities and Challenges
Business-to-business commerce is rapidly evolving across the economy as advances in technology affect business practices ranging from marketing, to online sales, to distribution. The ORM is not immune to these macro-level effects that may alter the expectations of its customer base. At the same time, the increased level of international sales places new and unique challenges on the ORM staff, who navigate a variety of issues associated with exporting ORM products all over the world. The use of overseas licensed
vendors to market and distribute ORM SRM products is commendable and presents a real opportunity to expand its international sales. Further, these macro-level operations may motivate an examination of current staffing strategies; emerging demand for new knowledge, skills, and abilities aligned to modern e-commerce operations; and possible opportunities for reengineering positions when positions become vacant.
The development of new SRMs is a lengthy and arduous process that requires great effort over several years. The ORM develops new SRM products with very limited resources in partnership with the research divisions. Effective and efficient use of ORM researchers and research staff from the research divisions are essential to the process. These partnerships have been, and continue to be, largely effective, as evidenced by the adoption of new SRMs on a frequent basis. Yet, the research performed to create these new products rarely results in highly cited publications in archival journals. And so, researchers may view SRM work as misaligned with their performance incentives within the divisions. Further, it appears that highly qualified research scientists may often perform much of the necessary yet labor-intensive and lower-level laboratory work associated with these efforts that may be better performed by laboratory technicians. These issues may discourage outstanding research staff to work on the development of SRMs and hinder the ORM’s ability to provide new products as demand emerges from industry.
As part of a business operations review, the MML needs to examine current staffing and benchmark it against comparable e-commerce operations to create a strategic workforce development and staffing plan.
The MML also needs to examine current staffing structures associated with recertification of existing products and the development of new SRMs to more appropriately assign tasks to research and technician staff, and to encourage SRM-related work as part of the overall measurement science mission of the organization.
ADEQUACY OF FACILITIES, EQUIPMENT, AND HUMAN RESOURCES
The ORM relies on the analytical and research facilities in the research divisions to make appropriate measurements in support of the production and sale of SRMs. This includes a variety of analytical instrumentation needed to quantitatively measure the properties of SRMs and the associated uncertainties in those measurements. Further, the ORM operates a very large warehouse and distribution operation that entails storage, packaging and labeling, and shipping of SRMs to customers located around the globe. The variety of packaging and storage facilities varies greatly to match the breadth of products in the ORM catalog. These include warehouses for bulk chemical and metal storage as well as environmentally controlled containers to store perishable biological materials safely.
Opportunities and Challenges
Many of the analytical instruments that are critical to the certification of SRMs are dated and do not represent the state of the art. While these instruments are still able to perform their functions, there are commercially available upgrades that may increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the analysis and characterization of SRMs. Additionally, many of these measurements and instruments lend themselves to automation, which may reduce the burden on research staff to perform routine labor-intensive tasks.
The MML needs to conceive and implement a plan for replacing, refurbishing, and maintaining analytical laboratory instrumentation housed within the research divisions that support the certification of SRM materials.
Further, the space and facilities needed to store biological materials appears to be reaching a limit in the current warehouse. As the breadth and number of perishable biological items increases, finding
appropriate storage facilities and containers may become a significant challenge. The MML needs to develop and implement a plan to accommodate growth in storage needs associated with perishable biological materials.