Gordon Ramsay, Julia Child, Jamie Oliver, all famous television metrologists.
If you’re dubious that the world’s most celebrated chefs have earned their metrology stripes, consider this – professional kitchens contain more measuring equipment than some factories. The regular tinkering of chefs with probes, sensors, scales, thermometers and a whole plethora of heating and cooling devices means they use most of the seven SI base units on a daily basis.
How many other professionals exhibit such metrology prowess? That’s quite an achievement and we’ve not even touched on molecular gastronomy.
In all seriousness, the world of food is driven by measurement – from ingredients, crop yields and pricing to processing, preparation and preservation. But perhaps more interestingly, food has driven the world of measurement. No other industry has had such a profound impact on the development of metrology than the global food system, perhaps that’s why the theme of this year’s World Metrology Day is measurements supporting the global food system.
The relationship between food and metrology goes way back. You might even call it a chicken and egg situation. Some of the first units of measure were created to support food production and distribution. As human civilisation grew, so did food production and with it trade across increasing distances. All of which required a standardised system of weights and measures. Historians tell us that the early spice trade began around 1000 years B.C. Journeys like that must have had a massive effect on global measurement systems. Suddenly there was an increased need for reliable measurement systems. Maritime trade in particular required precise navigation and distance measurements, time keeping and long-distance communication.
Now consider this: the first units of measure were not just about food, they were food! One of the earliest known units of mass is “the grain”. This is from the Encyclopaedia Britannica:
The ancient grain… was defined as the weight of a designated number of dry wheat (or other edible grain) kernels taken from the middle of the ear. It was also used as the original basis for the medieval English inch, which was defined for instructional purposes as the length of 3 medium-sized barleycorns placed end to end (about 2.54 cm).
There’s at least one unit of measurement based on food still in use today. That’s the carat, used since ancient times to measure the weight of gemstones, and more recently the purity of gold. The carat is based on the weight of the edible seeds of the Carob tree, which are thought to grow to an unusually uniform weight. This has been explored in detail by several academic studies, most recently Turnbill et al 2006.
The historical links between food production and metrology are numerous. Let’s now consider the current situation and look ahead to the future. The links between metrology and the global food system are more important now than ever.
According to a UN report, around 800 million people faced hunger and starvation in 2020. Nearly one in three people in the world (2.37 billion) did not have access to adequate food, that number has increased by 320 million since last year. From field to fork, the food industry is highly complex. Success touches on everything from soil quality and annual rainfall averages to processing and logistics.
Since the very beginning, metrology has stepped up to facilitate and improve food production and distribution around the world. It gives us the tools to maximise crop yields and the knowledge to enable data-driven decision resource management, and sustainable agricultural practices. Here on the Manufacturing Intelligence blog we’re always saying how smart digital technologies make production faster, more efficient, more sustainable. That applies to food production as much as it does to any other industry.
Smart digital metrology systems provide increased accuracy and precision in food production. With so many facing food poverty, it’s vital to eliminate waste and operate with the utmost efficiency. Metrology in global food systems ensures food quality by providing objective, reliable measurements. There’s real-time monitoring of food products throughout the supply chain with connected systems giving traceability across the entire system.
One of the most exciting areas where metrology is impacting the global food system is in warehousing and distribution. Modern facilities are increasingly using automated, robotic technology to pick and pack products, operating with an almost hive mind mentality and the science of metrology makes it all possible.
These robots rush around on a finely produced grid of tracks in warehouses the size of several football pitches, hundreds of them all moving at once. Each individual is in constant communication with the rest, so they never crash but pass by each other just a few centimetres apart. The tracks and the robots themselves are made to precise specifications, checked and verified with submicron accuracy and precision.
This year, as we celebrate world metrology day, let’s raise a micrometer and toast the global food industry, as we acknowledge the fundamental role it has played in the development of metrology into the endlessly fascinating and absolutely vital field of science it is today.
For more information about World Metrology Day, visit the official website here World Metrology Day.