Metric and the decline of UK manufacturing industry

Metric Views’ attention has been drawn to an article recently posted on the “Weekly Gripe”. This links the decline in the 1980’s of the UK’s engineering and manufacturing industries to their failure to embrace metrication in the decade before.

Some historians trace the onset of the decline of the British engineering industry to the Great Exhibition of 1851 (“High noon in Hyde Park”). Be that as it may, decline has accelerated in the last fifty years, with manufacturing industry’s contribution to UK output falling from 36% to 13% during that period. This coincided with a major move to metric around the world. Failure to recognise the threats and opportunities that this presented contributed to industry’s problems, but was the position really as bad as claimed by the contributor to the Weekly Gripe?

The link to the article is

Comments from those with first-hand experience of the engineering and manufacturing industries in the 1980’s and 1990’s would be particularly welcome.

9 thoughts on “Metric and the decline of UK manufacturing industry”

  1. After having graduated in Physics from the University of Natal (South Africa) in 1970, I did a post-graduate course in the “Theory and Practice of Automatic Control� at UMIST in 1974/5. My dissertation centred around the dynamics of a rectangular container that was designed to be 3 ft high, 2 ft long and 1 ft deep. When I announced to my supervisor that I would be doing my dissertation in SI units, his reaction was that I “may� use SI units. I sensed that he had been dreading that particular day.

    What was of particular concern that by 1974, UMIST, one of Britain’s leading technology institutes had not embraced SI. Could it have been the “technological drag� since many of the Department’s project and much of their funding came from British heavy industry?


  2. In 1980, I was working on a computer project for the Newcastle and Gateshead Water Company which involved displaying the depths of the various water reservoirs around Tyneside. All but one of the reservoirs were owned and operated by NGWC. The reservoir that was not owned by NGWC gave its depths in metres, the NGWC reservoir depths were in feet and decimals of a foot.

    Part of my work was to integrate the two. I suggested that the cleanest way to integrate the two was to convert the displays for all the reservoirs to metres. The actual conversion took place at very short notice, but went surprisingly smoothly – the operators had no problems recording the new numbers – it was the chief engineer who tool a pot of paint and put decimal point on the electro-mechanical displays to remind everybody that the number 965 was 9.65 m, not 95.6 ft.

    Why was it 1980 before that particular conversion was done? In South Africa, the conversion would have been mandatory. Unknown to me however, as I was working on that project, the EU was drafting Directive 80/181/EEC which would required all public administration to be carried out using metric units.


  3. I’ve been saying this for a long time about the same condition with US manufacturing, but nobody wants to hear it. The US (and the UK) could have completed metrication 25 years ago if they would have kept their manufacturing base as manufacturing is where the greatest exposure to measurements are.

    Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were responsible for both dissolving the metric boards and at the very same time opened the doors for manufacturing to leave the country. For the US, the high paying manufacturing jobs went to Mexico and other local, low wage countries, then much later to China and India.

    The products made by the companies that moved did metricate, but it was not seen by the US or UK worker. The consumer now buys metric products made elsewhere, but is often unaware as the products are labeled with imperial or USC dimensions. Except one often sees huge cartons with shipping dimensions, volumes and weights in metric units.

    Computers is one example of an industry that started out in the US all inch based but is fully metric now that the new designs and products are coming out of Asia. Products like monitors and printers are designed and made to metric specifications, even if they carry inch trade names. Names that rarely reflect a true dimension.


  4. The hard questions first, eh?

    The worst of all worlds is to mix Imperial and metric measure in the same report, paragraph, sentence. I’ve give up reading US sources reports for this reason. Some American writers think it’s trendy to throw in a bit of metric measure, but really it’s like throwing in a foreign word unnecessarily; just reveals your ignorance. If a Brit emigrates, part of the learning curve will be getting to grips with metric measure, unless his host nation is the United States (or Liberia, Myanmar). The rest of the world has gone metric.
    So here’s a notion for those astrophysicists out there, when “we” start colonising the local planets, surely adjustment will need to be made for difference in gravity, length of day, days in a year. Can SI cope with this? Or will we need a Galactic system with local variations?


  5. (In response to Andrew Milner above) SI units are not tied to the terrestrial environment. They are designed to be universal not just international. It remains to be seen how the problem with the kilogram prototype will be resolved but once a solution is found there will be no reason why SI cannot become an interplanetary standard.


  6. While any slowness in switching to metric certainly would not have helped British industries, I can’t help but think that the main reasons for the decline have been the following:

    Failure to invest in adequate R&D. Too much of British industry seemingly has focused on “doing things as we always have done” and has failed to keep up to date with new technologies, new manufacturing techniques, new materials, and so on. And then, to our great surprise, our products have been made obsolete and left behind. Yes, R&D costs, but failure to invest in R&D costs far more if the company becomes bankrupt and closes down.

    Failure to invest in adequate marketing. Even despite the above, the UK has managed to produce some great inventions in recent years which have been technically-innovative and even leaders in their field. But lack of marketing has kept their success hidden from the masses here, let alone made significant impacts in the worldwide market. Take the example of Psion’s series of personal organisers: extremely innovative and widely-regarded (in the UK, and to some extent, elsewhere in Europe), yet for lack of adequate marketing they failed to make much of an impact in the large USA market which could have seen them lead the world market in PDAs well before the likes of Palm did. On the other hand, consider the success of Dyson’s innovative vacuum cleaners: well-marketed, well-known and very successful.

    Marketing also refers to the marketing of science itself. The media is a great influencer of public opinion and perception, perhaps particularly among children, but where are the equivalents of “Tomorrow’s World” or the workplace visits of “through the arched window..” of “Playschool”, or even of adequate coverage of new innovations on TV news or in newspapers today?

    Failure of education to encourage interest in science and to demonstrate how science learned at school connects to the real world and can be used to create new products and innovations. This is perhaps the biggest failure of all. The teaching of science needs to be radically rethought to make it more relevant, and most importantly to encourage students to stick with it if we are to have any hope of inspiring children to become researchers and developers of innovative products. At school, I recall endless experiments with “trolleys” and ticker-tape, Van de Graaff generators and the like, but how do these relate to, for example, the design of motors for cars or trains or the workings of television? Also, in particular, the insistence of the English (but not Scottish) system of education in choosing only 3 subjects to study to a higher [sic] level, at a very young age, means many have to turn their back on science for good perhaps before they are more fully able to understand what it is they really want to do for a career.

    The failure of the Government to fully switch to metric also has to take a significant part of the blame here: is it perhaps unsurprising that science can be an unpopular study choice when pupils are given less opportunity to use, practice and understand the metric measurements they learn at school (and need to know in order to progress in that direction of study). Being forced to subsequently pick up on bits and pieces of the imperial system as well to accommodate many aspects of daily life can be just too much confusion for many and can easily lead to them dismissing science and other numerate disciplines as just “too hard”, when, without this clutter, perhaps more would have a greater practical understanding of the concepts and be more prepared to continue their studies.

    And last, but perhaps not least: over-powerful unions. While I am a great believer in trade unions as means to protect workers from exploitation and ensure a more equitable share of the profits that a company makes from the workers’ efforts, the too-uncompromising nature of British trade unions (and to a similar extent, the management) meant that prolonged strikes only hastened the inevitable outcome of manufacturing jobs going abroad, ultimately benefitting neither side.

    In a globalised economy, there is perhaps now little place for manufacturing itself in the UK, not least until wage differentials around the world are reduced, and the true environmental costs of long-distance transportation are realised and accounted for financially. However, where there is a place is for the knowledge-rich research and development roles which create the designs and techniques and technologies that actually enable that manufacturing to take place, wherever it may do so. But if we are to have any hope of inspiring our brightest pupils to pursue such careers we need to put the minimum of obstacles in their way, including tidying away for good the clutter of mixed-up measurements, otherwise there is little hope of the UK of once again taking a top-ten place in the list of world-renowned innovators.

    Editor’s note: This comment is helpful in giving some context to the role which failure to metricate fully may have played in the decline of British (and possibly American) manufacturing – and suggesting additional or alternative explanations.  Nevertheless this is not the place for further discussion of these non-metric issues.


  7. I worked for two large British engineering companies in the 80’s and 90’s. They went the same way as so many large British engineering companies. With the noticeable exception of printed circuit board design, which to this day involves designing with a horrible mixture of mostly imperial but some metric components, all my work has been done solely in metric. Failure to adapt to metric was not the reason why British engineering companies failed, it was simply failure to adapt. Failure to metricate is a symptom, not a cause.


  8. Are you sure that UK manufacturing industry declined for any reason other than cheap Asian labour?


  9. If the demise of British industry is caused by cheap Asian labour, how is that Germany still has a thriving manufacturing sector? The German equivalent of “Made in Germany” is still very common, but prices in Germany are lower than in the UK.


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