Where Is Metrification . . . Er, Metrication?

It’s obvious that the transition to the metric system in the United States is not zooming along. There is even disagreement about what to call the process—metrification or metrication.

Columns From: 5/1/2004 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Chris Koepfer

It’s obvious that the transition to the metric system in the United States is not zooming along. There is even disagreement about what to call the process—metrification or metrication.

In 2005, it will be 30 years since Congress passed the Metric Conversion Act. It mandated a 10-year voluntary conversion period starting in 1975. By 1985, the conversion was supposed to be complete.

Oh, there has been progress, but it has been slow. The scientific and medical communities work exclusively in the metric system. The federal government requires its contractors for supplies, construction and other things bid only in metric units.

I believe that the United States will convert to metric when it’s in our self-interest to do so. I don’t see the conversion happening by legislative fiat, as it has in some countries. A big part of the reason is that conversion is not cheap, nor is it easy.

Ours is a market-driven economy, and I believe the market will drive the decision as to which industries or companies convert to metric. Many of our global trading partners require, or soon will require, that export labeling be in metric units.

On the other hand, most of the tons of stuff the United States imports is metric. We’re going to learn about liters, meters, kilograms and the rest or get ripped off. It’s in the self-interest of the purchaser to understand metric measurement and its conversion to Imperial, if necessary.

There are two basic types of metric conversion—soft and hard. Soft conversion is basically using the computer to translate from one measurement system to another. The computer doesn’t care which measurement standard is specified; it works fine in either. An engineer friend of mine made this point as well—standards are the language of measurement. While Americans are sometimes derided overseas for only speaking English, our engineers are bilingual in measurement.

Hard conversion is, well, harder. It involves the real world of real things. Nobody is going to manufacture and market the metric equivalent of a ¾ inch end mill, or vice versa.

My take on this is that if your business needs to use the metric system, you should do so. However, being prepared for shifts in customer needs, such as specifying metrics, should be in your plans.

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