Cutting-edge technology is changing the face of precision measurement these days. For instance, a ray of light that is barely visible to the naked eye is now used for measuring length or distance. At the forefront of such developments in Hong Kong is the standards and calibration laboratory (SCL) of the Innovation and Technology Commission.
"Future developments in precision measurement lie in quantum physics and the use of fundamental constants of physics to define measurement standards," says Tse Chun-cheong, head of SCL, the Innovation and Technology Commission.
With a mission to promote internationally accepted measurement standards to underpin technological development and international trade, SCL is responsible for maintaining the reference standards of physical measurements for Hong Kong. It also provides calibration services to users of measuring instruments to ensure measurement accuracy.
"In a nutshell, we make use of our reference standards to calibrate precision instruments for users in trade and industry, calibration and testing, public utilities, research and education, industrial support and the government. They rely on accurate measurement for research, design, production, testing or quality control," Mr Tse explains.
Every object in daily life — from something as small as a needle to something as large as an aeroplane — relies on metrological accuracy for design and production, Mr Tse notes. "Good design and accurate measurement leads to smooth production and sophisticated product features. The slightest inaccuracy in measurement can lead to a faulty design, with the whole production process grinding to a halt."
A catalyst for measurement accuracy and quality, SCL is an accredited world-class primary standards laboratory. Calibrations follow stringent procedures and are carried out by competent technicians in a stringently controlled laboratory environment, and certified by qualified engineers. "SCL's calibration certificates are internationally accepted," Mr Tse adds.
To ensure measurement quality and reliability, SCL operates a quality management system to the international standard ISO/IEC 17025 for competence of calibration laboratory. It also conducts regular internal audits and management system reviews.
As with other government departments, the SCL is expected to operate with accuracy, precision, reliability and traceability and Mr Tse, who joined the laboratory five years ago, strives to constantly improve service delivery and management.
With experience in both the private and public sectors, he leads the development of SCL, focusing on enhancing customer service, efficiency and quality. "My challenge was to make optimal use of limited resources and meet the customers' demand for new and improved services," Mr Tse says, recalling his early days at the SCL.
Since quality and reliability are at stake, Mr Tse and his team regularly meet with customers and organise talks and seminars to collect their opinions and business insights. He also chairs a customer liaison group. "Our aim is to gear up our services to the changing market needs," he says.
Over the years, Mr Tse has helped to position SCL for further success with an expanding calibration service portfolio now encompassing acoustics, electromagnetic interference, electrostatics, radiation thermometry, rotational speed and nanometrology, in addition to a lexicon of existing services such as voltage, resistance, impedance, time, frequency, temperature, humidity, pressure and force. This has resulted in a 17 per cent increase in SCL's annual revenues over the last two years.
Each of SCL's subsidiary laboratories operates as an individual business unit. Engineers in charge of these laboratories present their business plans and results at regular business meetings.
To improve information access and operational efficiency, SCL leverages information technology and automation. In particular, its computerised information system now provides easy access to important and updated business statistics and performance indicators. "Manuals on quality, operation, technical procedure and safety are electronically accessible on LAN, saving paper and distribution time, making sure that everybody is on the same page," Mr Tse says. An array of automation techniques have also been developed to boost productivity and quality by minimising human errors during the calibration process.
Mr Tse's broad experience in the field has given him the exposure needed to implement a series of new initiatives for the SCL. Among these has been a cross training scheme that is helping to facilitate a high level of staff mobilisation.
People looking to join SCL as engineers should have a corporate membership of a relevant professional engineering institution, plus good analytical and interpersonal skills and an enquiring mind, Mr Tse remarks.
He advises young graduates to be clear about their career aspirations and options. "Trained engineers may work in the manufacturing, services or public sectors. But for a satisfying, long-term career, they should first assess their own interests, preferences and capabilities," he adds.