National Physical Laboratory

Future factory The future factory

The future factory will be a smart facility where design and manufacture are integrated into a single engineering process that enables 'right first time' every time fabrication of bespoke products.

Metrology will be used to assess and guarantee the fit, performance and functionality of every part and support the targets of zero waste and carbon neutrality.

Metrology will also support the interconnection of these new factories to form an industrial base that is independent of the scale of production and combines R&D with production, while achieving the lowest energy consumption and impact on the environment.

Explore NPL's progress towards meeting the challenge below:

Smart, adaptive and reactive manufacturing

Robots in car factory

Reconfigurable, adaptive, and market-reactive factories capable of small scale production - these are critical requirements for SMEs in the global marketplace.


  • As part of an EMRP-funded project, NPL is developing novel frequency-scanned laser techniques for real-time coordinate metrology for a factory environment. The technique will be suitable for precision position measurement of robots, machine tools, and measuring devices enabling smarter use of expensive manufacturing and measuring equipment, e.g. in deterministic manufacture and assembly.
  • NPL is a member of the 'Light Controlled Factory' EPSRC-funded project which will investigate and develop novel and interlinked measurement-enabled technologies for realising the next generation of factories. The vision is for the widespread adoption and interlinked deployment of novel, measurement-based techniques in factories, to provide machines and parts with aspects of temporal, spatial and dimensional self-awareness, enabling superior machine control and part verification. These are initial steps towards a reconfigurable factory.
  • NPL is seeking funding for research into 'virtual' instruments and tools. In order to provide valid data that can be exchanged in a digital factory environment, measurement results must be accompanied by valid uncertainty estimations together with uncertainty correlations. Virtual instruments, based on digital models with Monte Carlo simulation, are a valid technique for uncertainty estimation and process optimisation.
  • NPL has produced a 'desktop demonstrator' of a new camera-based multi-target metrology system which can be used for dynamic control of positioning systems. Hand-held probes are being developed which will be tracked in 3D and enable 6 degree of freedom measurement.

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High performance production and processing

Areal measurement standard

Combining flexibility, productivity, precision and zero-defect approaches to enable right-first-time prototyping and value-added manufacturing.


  • In collaboration with other European NMIs, NPL will deliver standards, new techniques and procedures to enable the use of traceable on-machine metrology on machine tools. This will reduce the costs of associated metrology and facilitate a transition to automated in-process metrology.
  • NPL, working with PTB and Etalon AG, has developed a laser-based tool for error mapping of machine tools and Coordinate Measuring Machines. Further development is ongoing in collaboration with the University of Oxford, seeking to reduce the time required to use the tool. The technique allows maximum machine tool accuracy to be achieved with reduced tool down time for calibration. The collaboration's recently developed multi-channel interferometer system is now being developed for real time machine tool monitoring. In situ periodic automatic calibration of machine tools will enable high accuracy to be maintained with minimum down time.
  • NPL is seeking European funding for collaborative work in the area of metrology support for additive manufacture - an emerging technology being used extensively for rapid prototyping of products and increasing in production of critical components. This will include the use of metrological assessment of X-ray Computed Tomography - a critical technique for verifying the integrity of additively-manufactured structures.
  • Reel-to-reel manufacturing is benefiting from ongoing NPL research into non-contact measuring systems able to detect features and defects in real time, as large areas of material pass by the sensor at rates up to 20 m/min.
  • Calibration of surface texture instruments, used for surface metrology of precision components, is benefiting from recent NPL research into Areal surface texture standards and traceability routes. New NPL calibration artefacts are entering the market and novel research into fundamental interactions between light and optical components will lead to a comprehensive technique for calibrating optical instruments such as coherence scanning interferometers.

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High-temperature electromagnetic material measurements

Steel industry

Overcoming the practical barriers to efficient, reliable electromagnetic materials metrology for high-temperature industrial applications.

Industrial requirements to employ and monitor functional materials in high temperature environments up to 1700 °C arise from drives towards:

  • Efficient industrial process control for energy saving in the future factory
  • More efficient use of natural resources in the future factory
  • Lifetime extension of end-use industrial products through in situ monitoring

NPL's role here is to work with industry and key UK research institutions to take relevant electromagnetic materials metrology 'out of the lab' and into real-life high-temperature environments. A number of difficult metrological challenges have to be faced:

  • Identification of practical electromagnetic measurement methods that can be applied at high temperatures: in most cases radically different approaches are required compared to those that operate well at ambient temperatures
  • Development of methods for measurement calibration suitable for employment at high temperatures: transference of measurement traceability across the temperature barrier is essential for reliable measurement
  • Development of embedded sensors and interconnects that will operate for the lifetime of industrial plant equipment without significant change over time

NPL and partners are currently targeting these challenges in two industrial sectors.

  1. Industrial scale microwave processing is a disruptive technology that has the potential to lead to significant energy savings. Dielectric metrology of materials at RF and microwave frequencies at elevated temperatures can support the on-line monitoring of reagents in commercial microwave chemistry reaction vessels. NPL is working with a partner to develop suitable dielectric probes suitable to monitor reaction environments. This work has much wider outlets for the microwave processing of materials. For example, in the application of microwave processing to mineral extraction.

  2. In the manufacturing of steel the control of the production process offered by measuring the material properties online using electromagnetic techniques will reduce the 20GJ of energy required (and 2 tonnes of CO2 emitted) to produce 1 tonne of uncoated steel strip. Processing parameters control the microstructure of metallic alloys which influences the properties (mechanical and physical) of the alloy, which are usually determined by off-line destructive testing. This is a time-consuming and costly process, which does not allow monitoring of material during processing, with the associated possibility for feedback control, and only assesses a small fraction of the material processed. Thus, there is a strong incentive to develop sensors capable of measuring the microstructure during processing operations such as rolling, controlled cooling and annealing. The electromagnetic sensor systems that NPL help to develop operate in a non-contact manner so that the process does not need to be interrupted in applications such as rod and strip rolling.

Experience gained in these specific research areas will combine with other high temperature research projects at NPL on high temperature interconnects, piezoelectric actuators and thermal functional materials to facilitate much wider industrial developments.

2020 themes:

Measurement at the frontiersHigh temperature EM measurement across the spectrum: overcoming the calibration challenge.


Smart and interconnected measurementEffective harsh environment interconnects that function throughout product lifetime.


Embedded and ubiquitous measurementIn situ monitoring of process and material health, both in the future factory and in end-products such as engines.

Sustainability and cost reduction

Less waste, lower energy intensive, reduced equipment, smarter re-use.


  • Outputs from NPL R&D will lead to improved accuracy in metrology tools and this will naturally lead to improved yield, improved accuracy in manufacturing, reduced waste and better efficiency.
  • NPL works in on-machine metrology will reduce equipment costs as calibrated traceable machine tools take on a dual role as metrology devices, using either artefact-based reference standards (medium scale) or external intrinsically-traceable metrology systems based on frequency scanned lasers. Fewer expensive CMMs will be required and, for large components, the costs associated with their transport to a measuring location will be removed as they will be measurable in situ. This will additionally reduce energy costs and the machining accuracy improvement will reduce costs of re-machining.
  • NPL is coordinating the EMRP Project 'TRACIM' which will develop new technology that will deliver traceability of computationally-intensive metrology, transparently and efficiently, at the point of use, every time a metrology software component is used. The factories of the future will thrive on data interchange and unless the data and the software which processes it are validated and traceable, inaccuracies may remain undetected and manufacturing process decisions will be unreliable.

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Additive manufacturing

Additive manufacturing

New design and production freedoms require new metrology.

Additive manufacturing (or near-net shape manufacturing), where components are built up layer-by-layer enables manufacturers to create highly complex custom objects. It is increasingly being used to make components in the aerospace, automotive and medical sectors and is ideally suited to making high-value parts, which is a key strength in the UK manufacturing sector.


  • In the past few years NPL has provided commercial measurements of material microstructure and physical dimensions to customers.
  • Due to the comparative immaturity of the technology, there is currently a lack of the standardisation needed to underpin a wider uptake. In order to better understand the measurement needs of the industry NPL has recently undertaken a short study to assess how it can best provide under-pinning measurement support.
  • Better measurements of the input materials, in-process measurements to improve stability and quality and novel, non-destructive testing to validate the performance of 'batch-of-one' parts are required to improve underlying measurement support. NPL has identified potential partners to collaborate with their current experts and identify strategies to prioritise these areas and start joint research proposals to address industrial needs.
  • NPL has recently completed a short collaborative project with the Manufacturing Technology Centre looking at the application of extant ISO surface roughness standards to additively made metal parts. Due to the current high levels of roughness, the standards are not immediately applicable; the work has shown that, with careful choice of processing settings, it is possible to obtain robust results that are needed in industry.
  • To further drive the standards work in the UK, NPL is working with the STFC, MTC and BSI to develop a co-ordinated approach to the development of certification and validation of AM made parts, with industry and academia.
  • A European project on metrology for additive manufacturing is currently being proposed for the EMPIR programme.

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