The metric payoff
From the November/December 1996 issue of Metric in Construction, published by the Construction Metrication Council of the National Institute of Building Sciences.
by Thomas R. Rutherford, PE
What is the “payoff” for metric conversion? The answer is different for each organization or industry, but it can be estimated by calculating metrication costs and benefits. Costs include all the “up front” costs of conversion, including administrative and technical time, paperwork, supplies, and training. Some industries may have substantial sales and capital equipment costs as well.
Benefits include the dollar value of the long-term gains from metric conversion. These gains come from two principal sources: (1) increases in productivity and quality brought about by the use of a decimal-based measurement system, and (2) the ability to more effectively compete in world markets. Some estimate that for measurement-based activities such as construction, savings from productivity and quality alone can amount to 1 percent of construction costs; others believe the percentage is even higher. Regardless of the amount, the savings are perpetual.
For example, total metric conversion costs for the 50 state highway departments are estimated to lie between $50 and $100 million. The states spend about $20 billion on highway construction every year so a 1 percent reduction in construction costs due to improved productivity and quality amounts to an annual savings of $200 million. At the 1 percent rate, the payoff for highway conversion takes 3 to 6 months with a savings of 100 to $150 million the first year and $200 million each succeeding year. Even at a tenth of this rate, the payback period is only 30 to 60 months with savings in each following year amounting to $20 million in perpetuity.
For industry, the benefits of metrication as a passport to the global marketplace can far exceed productivity and quality gains, but each firm must assess its prospects based on the mix of products and services it provides. Some have been amazed at how metrication has increased sales; others have had to metricate just to retain market share. As Representative Vernon Ehlers of Michigan noted in Congressional testimony this year: it is not just how much we will gain by metrication, it is how much we have been losing by not switching to the world’s standard of measurement.
A parallel issue is the simultaneous retention of the customary units in construction activities. The federal government soon will have about $25 billion in metric facilities entering the inventory each year, and it will become increasingly expensive to retain two measurement systems. We must, therefore, move completely to the metric system for all phases of the facility life cycle (i.e., design, construction, operations, and maintenance). The longer we delay in doing so, the fewer the benefits we receive from metrication.