National measurement institute and Britain's largest applied physics organisation

National Physical Laboratory - UK

Established at the turn of the twentieth century, the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) has been at the forefront of some of the world’s most important scientific breakthroughs including the development of radar and the automatic computer engine. Distinguished scientists such as Louis Essen, the inventor of the atomic clock, and Alan Turing, the computer science pioneer and Enigma machine codebreaker, spent parts of their careers working on projects at the NPL.

In 2009, the NPL decided to expand its services beyond its London headquarters and set up a base in northern England. The decision to open a laboratory at Huddersfield University has paid dividends thanks largely to its location in the Leeds City Region, which has the most people (139,000) working in manufacturing in the UK and an annual economic output worth £55 billion.

After quickly outgrowing its initial premises, which originally housed a single piece of equipment and three staff, the laboratory moved in 2012 to its current, larger site at the 3M Buckley Innovation Centre which boasts two laboratories, seven employees and seven measuring systems. The future is looking even brighter as the NPL has entered a strategic partnership with the university, which involves plans to create a new purposebuilt research facility and a centre of excellence for advanced manufacturing metrology. “This next phase in the laboratory’s development highlights the importance of measurement science in the production of high added-value goods by UK manufacturers,” explains laboratory manager Andy Morris.


Unique facility

NPL Huddersfield offers expertise in the dimensional inspection and measurement of complex assemblies and components such as aircraft engine parts and medical devices. Widely believed to be a unique facility because of its equipment range, it is home to a number of state-of-the-art machines running sophisticated metrology software, including a new bridge coordinate measuring machine (CMM) supplied by Hexagon Metrology. The laboratory provides a range of associated services to businesses in the Yorkshire and Humber area including CMM programming, bespoke measurement training and measurement consultancy. It holds weekly free measurement surgeries for companies keen to discuss measurement challenges and strategies with NPL engineers or explore new technologies such as laser scanning. The facility regularly hosts meetings for visitors from government departments and organisations such as BIS (Business Innovations & Skills), UKTI (Trade & Investment), Innovate UK and other universities.

Trusted supplier

The NPL chose Hexagon Metrology to supply a new CMM as part of an ongoing plan to boost its research and development capabilities, part programming and training services. “Hexagon Metrology is a trusted supplier whose equipment can be relied upon. It is a company that is not only extremely supportive of NPL objectives, but also shares our passion for assisting manufacturers in this region,” says Morris.

The high-accuracy bridge-style DEA GLOBAL Silver Performance 7.10.7 with an automatic indexable probe head was selected mainly because of its 700 x 1000 x 700 mm measurement volume and powerful PC-DMIS CAD++ software for direct CAD file translation. The machine has proved to be a versatile addition to the facility as its PC-DMIS measuring software allows NPL engineers to help the large number of businesses already using this industry standard metrology package for training and writing part programs. Amongst the other Hexagon Metrology equipment at the NPL are a ROMER Multi Gage portable measuring arm and an OPTIV Classic 321GL tp multisensor CMM, which offers both a traditional touch-trigger tactile probe and non-contact vision sensor. This enables a greater range of workpieces to be inspected, including small and fragile parts unsuitable for tactile measurement.

Supporting manufacturers

The equipment is proving to be a valuable asset to the laboratory team in its efforts to help local manufacturers not only advance their metrology skills, but also aid future product development and methods. For example, the DEA GLOBAL Silver CMM has been employed to improve the measurement accuracy of a key component for industrial centrifugal fan maker Halifax Fans. The Brighouse-based company has been able to refine its parts drawings supplied to an overseas production facility with the assistance of NPL Huddersfield.

Meanwhile, the OPTIV Classic multisensor CMM has undertaken some important investigative work for a leading engineering construction organisation. TEi, headquartered in Wakefield, enlisted the help of the laboratory to check the integrity of a stainless steel bolt. The CMM’s optical measurement capabilities were used to inspect the thread for any unexpected deviations caused through loading in service. The high accuracy zoom lens of the OPTIV Classic system was ideal for the dimensional process assessment thanks to its quick and simple setup, fast scanning and rapid evaluation of the measurement data. The results formed part of a wider investigation, which ultimately revealed no evidence of any variation in the thread pitch.

In a recent customer survey, the NPL estimated it had directly helped organisations achieve benefits in excess of £100m a year through good measurement practice. “We’re delighted to have helped users either introduce or develop new and existing products and processes as well as improve measurement accuracy and change calibration or traceability,” concludes Morris.