Here We Go Again

Turning Point

When I was younger, older people would tell me that history repeats itself. Being young and dumb, I didn’t believe what I hadn’t already seen. You know what? They were right.

One piece of proof is contained in an article I recently read that was posted on CNN.com. Although it was news to me, apparently one of our stalwart presidential candidates, Lincoln Chafee, has jumped into the “way back” machine with the date set to 1975.

That was the year President Gerald Ford signed the Metric Conversion Act, which was the culmination of a drive to take the country away from feet, yards, inches and miles, and toward the decimal-based land of centi, milli, and kilo and meters, as well as many other measurements divisible by ten—a system known internationally as “SI.” I remember President Ford’s national push, some of which has fizzled out, but some has taken root.

In spite of the common belief that the United States is one among three other countries described as non-metric, that is not entirely true. By the way, those other two so-called non-metric powerhouses are Liberia and Miramar (formally Burma).

Some countries such as Canada and the U.K., which are considered SI countries, are actually hybrids of the metric and non-metric systems. Canada uses metric on its highway system yet plays football on fields measured in yards. The U.K. uses non-metric signage on its roads, like the U.S.

The truth is, there is much SI being used in the United States. Most of manufacturing, all of science and education has embraced SI and use it daily. In effect, our country is like being able to speak two languages; SI and Imperial in some ways are interchangeable thanks in part to establishment of standard conversion between U.S. customary units and SI, which were adopted in 1893. That’s where 2.54 centimeters to the inch came from. Yeah, we’ve been at this a long time.

Much has changed since the 1975 metric initiative, especially in manufacturing. Back then, I can remember to work on an “American” automobile required two sets of tools, one in SI and another in “inch.” The domestic cars back then were hybrids using inch here and metric there. Today, only metric tools are needed.

Likewise, the importation of machine tools has accelerated. Shops that use machines from metric countries have become familiar, maintaining SI-designed and built equipment. Not much is being imported from Liberia or Burma. 

So the question is, should we or shouldn’t we nationalize SI as the standard system of measurement in the U.S.? I would submit that the conversion is taking place in our world of precision machining. Since the national efforts to convert from inch to SI in the 1970s, ours has become a global economy.

Customers are the driver for this change. It would seem very short-sighted for a shop to no-quote a job because it is specified in metric. And increasingly, that is the system being demanded.

That’s why I think this conversion is well underway for precision metalworkers. Who cares if the road signs are kilometers and miles? That’s not that important. The bigger picture is how we play on the global field that’s demarcated more in meters than yards.

As we enjoy “most favored nation” status for manufacturing, I see us moving inexorably toward the SI system in both design and manufacturing. It’s a move driven by needs of industry to continue growing its markets domestically and internationally.

What is important is the change happening in the marketplace by the marketplace and under the radar of mandated change such as Mr. Chaffee is proposing. We tried that.

I’m reminded of something I learned from my dad years ago. When we were working on a project, he taught me, “measure twice, cut once.” Sounds like good advice, especially today.