Article - Issue 16, July/August 2003

Passionate about partnership

Sir Peter Williams FREng

Download the article (236 KB)

One of the goals of the Engineering and Technology Board (ETB) is to help speed up the pace at which ideas become reality, so that they can positively impact on our lives, to increase the number of scientific breakthroughs to commercialisation. Often technological innovations are struggling to find an exploitation route and it can take between 7 and 15 years before we can tangibly see the results of scientists’ hard work.

We need to reduce the time lag between ideas and innovations, their realisation and their ultimate application for the benefit of society and the economy.

Measurement is often the catalyst of innovation

As both a scientist and an engineer, my work has always depended on accurate measurement. However, it wasn’t until more recently I appreciated how measurement is often a catalyst for innovation. Measurement is fundamental to innovation and sound engineering practice. We can only make progress and understand the progress we are making when we measure with accuracy and confidence. Without a trusted measurement and standards infrastructure our economy would quickly falter.

I firmly believe that our quality of life is also increasingly dependent on technology and science, and successful partnerships are at the heart of this equation. The next generation of drug treatments, for example, will rely on our ability to determine the structure of drug-related proteins, and on new systems of more precise drug delivery. The National Physical Laboratory (NPL) plays a vital role in the research of new measurement systems, including methods for ensuring the accurate delivery and dosage of ultrasound for physiotherapy, and radiotherapy treatment for cancer. Such crucial technological advances impact significantly on the effectiveness of patient treatment and consequently on their quality of life. By continuing to increase our partnership portfolio with other disciplines and proactively engaging with the engineering community and industry, NPL will lead the UK in the twenty-first century, in the same way it did when it was first created in the 1900s.

Since my appointment as Chairman I have been enormously encouraged by the outcome of several collaborative ventures to date, and am spurred on by exciting developments not only in the field of healthcare, but also in areas such as e-metrology (which gives remote access to measurement services via the Internet) and the application of biometrics for security systems (for authentication of individual identity, in, for example, computer logon, remote bank account accessing and automatic passport control). By continuing to exploit and share the results of innovative research and development, and through new and already established partnerships with industry, I am confident that we can be sure we are addressing future industrial and engineering needs.

Concentrate on what you do best and partner for the rest

As Chairman of Oxford Instruments, and one of the team that took the company public in the early 1980s, I believe that much of what the company has achieved is down to successful partnerships with its major customers such as Siemens and IBM. We all want to be self-reliant and want the excitement of getting there first. However, it is no longer smart to work alone. The pace of change is too quick for all of us to be expert at everything. Today, if you want to be a world beater, you mustn’t be afraid about sharing control.

NPL has enjoyed some marked achievements since the introduction of Serco Group plc as management contractor about seven years ago. We can build upon the success of existing partnerships with large and small industrial enterprises and academic institutions, and continue to devise metrology solutions and services that will have a huge impact on the wellbeing of society and the economy now and in the future. The key to NPL’s success is that we are not to trying to build new competencies from scratch. We concentrate on what we do best and partner for the rest. Nothing is best done alone anymore and NPL’s scientists are involved in hundreds of successful collaborations.

Bringing science down from the clouds

One of the reasons I made the move, in the 1970s, from academia into the world of commerce was because I wanted to translate scientific research into practical applications. My latest appointment provides a golden opportunity to play an active role in this translation process. NPL has been working as a generator of knowledge for over a hundred years and, since the early 1990s when it moved away from direct Government control to forge closer links with commerce and industry, it has been at the forefront of several important applications of science. My goal is to close this gap between breakthroughs and their implementation. The typical time it takes to move from idea to the scientific drawing board to testing, development and finally manufacture and adoption. Just such a challenge has emerged right now with the substantial international upsurge in interest for building mega-scale optical and millimetric-wave telescopes. NPL has perfected a new measurement process, known as multilateration, that offers the most practical way available to date of measuring both the large dish-shaped antenna and the segments from which they are constructed. For such applications, multi-lateration is accurate to 1 part in a million, well in excess of what can be achieved using conventional measurement techniques. NPL is also working on economical, fast, and yet accurate ways of measuring the precise shapes of the hundreds of mirrors segments that will constitute the optical elements of the mega-telescopes.

According to the Institute of Physics, the realisation of such mega-telescopes will constitute a leap forward in astronomy equivalent to Galileo’s invention of the world’s first astronomical telescope in 1610. Such optical telescopes will have up to 100 times more light gathering and detection power to help us determine the far reaches of the universe, and be beneficial to leading manufacturers of ships, aircraft, optical instruments and other vehicles where high precision is vital. However, unless strong working links are urgently forged with industrial and engineering partners, it could be another 10 to 15 years before the project comes to fruition.

Money measurement and the future

‘Impact’ is a word which also applies to my concerns about the value for money that the UK receives from science in general, and from the services of NPL in particular. An independent review calculated that the National Measurement System (NMS) – of which NPL is the largest contractor – adds annually £5 billion of value to the UK economy. This represents staggeringly good value for the government’s annual investment of some £45 million in the NMS (about £1 per UK citizen per annum). Concurrently, this year’s Institute of Physics report shows that, in 2000, 43% of UK manufacturing is underpinned by physics and this percentage is growing. However, at the same time, investment in these types of companies or in physics based research is declining. UK science and engineering research is becoming under-funded compared to Japanese, French, American and other international counterparts. For example, investment in R&D by the top ten Japanese companies is more than the total R&D investment by UK industry as a whole. Countries like Japan are not so far ahead of the UK in terms of new applications or innovations, but they have a huge R&D spend and are very good at getting ideas to market in good time. We need more investment from government and industry and more partnerships to fully engage all disciplines or the UK could get left behind.

I cannot stress enough how vital this investment will be within the next decade, with anticipated metrology breakthroughs in areas such as quantum standards, nanotechnology and biotechnology. These will help unlock significant business opportunities through new product development and increased productivity. At the same time, investment will be key to continuing to improve measurement support to the UK’s manufacturing sector, as the UK seeks to position itself at the high-value end of manufacturing.

‘Shaving off five years’

The role of reliable measurements in underpinning the quality of our everyday life is increasing as we grow more and more dependent upon technology. The progress in mobile communications would not have been possible if standards in microwave communications technology had not been established, or if manufacturers disagreed on the values of certain critical measurements. At the same time, when considering safety issues concerning the use of mobile phones, it is important that the radiation received by the human brain can be accurately measured, as well as the biological impact of that radiation.

In the future, technologies such as nanotechnology and biotechnology are going to be of increasing importance, enabling revolutionary products to be developed for the healthcare, electronics, chemicals and materials industries and other sectors. However, these sciences need to be understood and communicated appropriately. Closing the gap between what scientists do and what the public understands is in itself a real challenge. Indeed, more needs to be done to adequately inform and the media needs to accurately explain and report as oppose to sensationalising.

In just the last few years NPL has made significant progress in closing the idea to implementation gap. The diversity of our achievements – from leading-edge research in nano-sciences to innovation in internet calibration; from productivity-boosting projects, working with small businesses, to the creation of a partnership to develop the next generation of global navigation and satellite systems applications – reflects the complexity of the technologies involved. If all disciplines can work together and forge closer links with business and industry we will close that gap. I hope that in two years time we will be able to say that we’ve shaved off five years.

The pace of change is too quick for all of us to be expert at everything

Sir Peter Williams FREng

Chairman, the Engineering and Technology Board Chairman, National Physical Laboratory

If you want to find out more about the work of the Engineering and Technology Board or the National Physical Laboratory, visit and

[Top of the page]