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Going Metric Makes Sense

Going Metric Makes Sense
You Can’t Ask a Country to be Imperial and Metric

From the April/May 1975 issue of South African Metrication News.

Britain is going metric because it makes economic sense. The metric system has been chosen by virtually every country in the world. Many have specified SI and some have already legislated to forbid the use of any other system. About 65% of our external trade is with established metric countries, almost 35% is with countries that are changing now; less than 0.5% is with the non-metric countries – Burma, Brunei, Liberia and the two Yemens. USA had long been a major stronghold of imperial measures. Not any more. In an Education Bill passed in August this year Congress recognized that the metric system will become the dominant system of weights and measures in the United States and voted $40 million to be spent for metric education over the next four fiscal years.

This is what the Executive Director of the American National Metric Council has to say:

Let there be no misunderstanding. American industry is going metric. Industry in America sees that metric is becoming the world system of measurement. That is a basic fact of life which no country can afford to ignore. In the automobile industry, in computers, in aerospace and in engineering generally, many of the big industrial firms have already taken the decision that new designs will be in metric. These firms included IBM, General Motors, Ford, Caterpillar, Xerox, International Harvester, Boeing, Rockwell.

America’s external trade accounts for about 2% of the gross national product. Britain’s figures are nearer 20%. What is necessary for America is even more necessary for us. We cannot afford to be the odd man out.


To attempt to stay imperial in the face of such a metric swing would be increasingly expensive. Industry would be burdened with dual design, dual production, dual book-keeping, dual packing: one set for home use, one set for export. But industry imports as well as exports. Countries selling to us would be unlikely to produce in imperial specially for us and British industry would speak with an ever fainter voice in the arena of international standards.

There is of course a reason for this world-wide attraction of metric. It is simplicity. A measurement system based on tens and designed for use in all disciplines is manifestly more efficient than imperial with its accumulation of diverse conversion factors and units.

The British engineering industries set themselves a broad metrication objective rather than a detailed programme. The timetable for these industries, Basic Programme and Guide to the Adoption of the Metric System in Engineering (PD 6426) was published in 1968 by the British Standards Institution. This programme set two main guidelines for metric production in the engineering industry – 25% metric production by the end of 1971 and 75% by the end of 1975.

This article by the Director of the British Metrication Board was first published in the December 1974 issue of The Production Engineer, and is reproduced here by kind permission of the Institute of Production Engineers, London.

Metric value

Surveys show that at the end of 1973, on average, 44% by value of engineering production was in metric or was metric compatible, compared with 34% at the end of 1972. Companies with more than half metric output have increased from 26% in 1972 to 45% in 1973, while the proportion of small companies with more than half metric output is now greater than large companies – 52% against 45%. However, metric production is only one measure of progress and perhaps not a very good one at this stage. The situation in engineering design is a rather more important indication. Of engineering firms that do design work, the proportion undertaking some design work in metric had risen by the end of 1973 to nearly 90%, whereas it was less than 60% in 1969, and 38% were doing over half their designing in metric compared with only 6% in 1969.


While a broad statistical survey of the whole of the engineering industry gives an accurate enough picture of progress in general terms, there is no doubt that the rate of change has been uneven in a variety of sectors. In 1973 the Metrication Board commissioned a study by management consultants of 16 selected sectors of engineering chosen to give a wide coverage of the engineering industry’s production, from components and equipment used mainly in other sectors of engineering to finished goods sold outside the industry. The information derived from nearly 300 firms showed that, while there were no general obstacles to the metric change in engineering, the pace of change has varied and this unevenness in itself was producing particular difficulties between sectors. The Metrication Board is no engaged in an examination with the trade associations concerned of the best means of overcoming these remaining interface problems.


For some time now engineering firms have been reaping the benefits of the metric change. They are proving that the two basic reasons for going metric are sound. The metric system really does make life simpler in industry, whether in the design office or on the shop floor. As a Yorkshire firm which completed its change some time ago found, when we changed our materials, stock control and costings to metric the arithmetic was simplified and many of the common mistakes made with imperial measurements were eliminated.

Already firms in engineering and other industries report improved export sales because products made to metric standard really are more competitive in world markets.

Many firms that have completed the change have gained a substantial bonus. Planning and implementing the metric change focuses attention on the whole manufacturing chain. Designers think their designs afresh, production engineers re-examine the production processes, purchasing officers re-consider supplies. Metrication provides a unique opportunity which no management can afford to neglect to overhaul the whole organisation and even in the most efficient firms to achieve worthwhile standardization and rationalization. These benefits do not follow automatically – they have to be sought and won. It is a field where production engineers can make a major contribution.

Dramatic example

Fasteners provide one of the most dramatic examples. Engineers, and users of engineering products, have long been plagued by a plethora of fastener types and sizes. By using the ISO metric range of fasteners, instead of the many incompatible traditional types, there are great cost benefits to be gained. But individual companies can do better than that. Few of them need the whole range and by subjecting their requirements to the closest scrutiny many can reduce the variety of their needs even further without any loss in design freedom or in production standards, and with great gains in efficiency. Marconi Instruments have done it by cutting their screw inventory from 1 250 items to 91. The Ford Motor Company has done it and have reported to the Metrication Board that the benefits are even greater than they had estimated.

Lower costs

Simplicity, standardization and variety reduction – which are among the lasting benefits of metrication – should lead to the achievement of lower production and tooling costs, the reduction of inventories and the saving of time and labour. There are of course costs in going metric, as there are with any other investment, and the transition can be a complex operation. But the costs are once and for all while the benefits are enduring. It has not proved possible either in Britain or in any other country to establish costs on a national basis but a number of individual firms, having estimated their own costs, have informed the Metrication Board that in the event the cost was much lower than was originally expected.

I believe that in achieving these desirable results the role of the production engineer is crucial and cannot be overestimated.

P. J. L. Homan
Director, (British) Metrication Board

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