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National labs are critical during a crisis and beyond

JT Janssen, Chief Scientist at NPL discusses how the science and engineering community is rising to the challenge and supporting society to get back on its feet.

NPL was founded 120 years ago and is no stranger to a national crisis, supporting the war efforts during both World Wars, supporting UK industry through numerous global financial crises and now through a global pandemic.

As the UK’s National Metrology Institute, NPL is responsible for the measurement standards and measurement infrastructure for the UK. Having confidence in measurements is absolutely crucial during a crisis, NPL provides this confidence. Therefore, it was important that NPL remained open throughout the pandemic to ensure that it delivered core critical services including:

  • Healthcare services – calibrations allowing for the delivery of cancer treatments, sterilisation of medical equipment and assurance of radio-pharmaceuticals
  • Timing – NPL maintains UK’s National Time Scale (UTC). Our atomic clock is accurate within 1 second in 158 million years and contributes to Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). Accurate timing is essential for navigation, telecommunications, data transfer, fair financial trading and more
  • Environmental monitoring – running air quality networks in England and Wales and calibrating the networks in Scotland ensured that we continue to meet clean air regulations
  • Nuclear safety – calibration of neutron detectors to allow continued safe operations in nuclear power stations

NPL is a national laboratory with a strong track record in innovative research with real impact, so it was keen to address the immediate healthcare crisis and support UK companies. By engaging with healthcare contacts, industry and government, NPL rapidly had a multitude of activities up and running, from helping analysis of health data and giving guidance on fever screening to designing ventilators and advising on manufacturing standards.

Offering free access to its science and engineering expertise, NPL provided assistance to organisations in overcoming problems directly related to COVID-19, for example,  for organisations working on the development of new ventilators, NPL offered testing and validation to quality assure the products met safety and quality standards as well as additional measurement support to enable them to scale up production.

In addition, NPL engineers have designed a low cost ventilator for use in developing economies. The project was conceived by Jean Morris, a research engineer at NPL and delivered by a multidisciplinary team from across NPL. The team developed several different ventilator prototypes, which led to the design of the PocketVent, a simple to use device that requires limited training time for healthcare professionals and is made from widely available parts.

NPL has also worked with Protecting Heroes, a community project by supporting the testing and validation of personal protective equipment for use in the NHS. The Protecting Heroes team specialise in industrial engineering and design, they have worked to develop face shields for deployment to the NHS front line.

Over the last few months we have all had to adjust and embrace new digital ways of working and it has highlighted that the future and our ‘new normal’ will result in the increasing reliance on a rapidly accelerating digital infrastructure. There is an increase in companies looking at how they can automate processes and benefit for AI and Machine Learning to boost their productivity.

NPL will be working directly with industry to enable the development of data quality standards and frameworks so they can have confidence in the data they are collecting and therefore confidence in their decision making.

The COVID-19 crisis has also shown how difficult it can be to get products to market quickly, having tested and certified that they meet the required standards. NPL is an expert in physical testing but to make processes across all industrial and manufacturing sectors more agile in the recovery phase and beyond, we also need to develop the UK’s virtual testing capabilities, making use of digital technologies to get novel products to new markets faster.

Instead of having to send people to test items in situ or send products to NPL, we will work through the National Measurement System to develop a combined digital and physical test programme. Virtual testing can take place at both the design and production stage, reducing potential errors earlier on in the process.  

11 Sep 2020