INTERVIEW - ANSWERS TO A FEW QUESTIONS YOU MAY HAVE ABOUT US METRIC CONVERSION

byValerie Antoine, Executive Director, US Metric Association, 10245 Andasol Ave, Northridge CA 91325 - 1504

Q: We have a perfectly good measuring system, so why does the USA have to change to using the metric system?

A: We are living in a metric world where just about every country, except the USA, uses the metric system, and other countries are now telling us that they don’t want to buy products manufactured by US companies if they aren’t made to metric sizes (and if they aren't labeled in metric units). The 15 European Union (EU) countries, which have been good customers of US companies, now tell us that after 1999 they won't allow products into their countries unless they have metric-only labels, literature, etc. We must operate in the world marketplace, and we can't stay competitive if we can't provide metric goods. With 99% of the rest of the world using metric, there is no chance we can persuade them to accept our inches and pounds.

Q: Why do we have to sell to other countries?

A: Our own population cannot absorb all the products our industries produce. Our companies need to sell outside the US to stay in business and keep US residents in their jobs. Because our companies have to buy certain raw materials overseas (that aren't available in the US), their money is going out of the country and they need to make sales overseas to bring back the funds used to buy those raw materials. In addition, we are sending additional money overseas when we buy all sorts of metric foreign foods (which are made to metric dimensions, and we are using them with no problems).

Q: Why can't companies make inch-pound products to sell here and make metric products to sell outside the US?


A:This would raise our costs for buying inch-pound products and also make the metric version of the products priced considerably higher so foreign customers won't buy them. A manufacturer's expenses really increase when two production lines must be run (one for inch-pound and the other for metric products). Metric and inch tools, machinery, and parts must be kept separated, must be sorted and inventoried, adding to the cost of production. There are additional costs for record keeping, warehouse space, and other factors, such as mixing orders so non-metric products might be sent to metric countries in error. There also is a good chance of workers accidentally mixing up metric and inch-pound parts so products must be scrapped. All this adds to the price of a product. It's cheaper to make only one size and sell it to everyone.

Q: Why is the federal government making the metric transition?

A: The federal government, realizing the necessity to produce "world class" products so they can be sold worldwide, is providing leadership in helping industry make the transition to metric. This is being accomplished by the government's switching to metric usage and requesting its contractors to supply metric products when the government buys goods from our industries.

Q: How can those who are too old to learn a new measurement system expect to keep their jobs? I've always had problems with arithmetic, anyway.

A: If you're smart enough to hold down a job, you should have no problems. Even the illiterate curbside traders in India learned to use the metric units when their country converted... And they learned the everyday metric units in a matter of hours. The key to learning to use the units of the modern metric system known as SI ( for System of International Units) is to forget the inch-pound units and not attempt to convert back and forth. You don't need arithmetic. In fact, if you try to use arithmetic, you're learning metric system usage the hard way.

Q: How can I remember the metric units?

A: Find a familiar object that is about the size of each metric unit you want to learn. Then practice until, each time a metric unit is mentioned, you get a mental image of the familiar object that is about the size of the metric unit. For example, the millimeter is a tiny unit that replaces fractions of inches. Its length is the size of the thickness of a dime. Each time you hear the word, millimetre, think: the thickness of a dime. If someone mentions an item is 10 millimeters long, just imagine how high a stack of 10 dimes would be to general an idea of that item's length. If 20 millimeters is mentioned, think of the height of a stack of 20 dimes. Of course, if you need an exact measurement, you'll get a metric ruler to find the precise length. Use a similar method to learn the 6 to 8 everyday metric units you'll need to use, and you'll soon be "thinking metric" which is the objective of your efforts.

Modern technology is making this a smaller world where better communication is required. Just as English is the worldwide language of business, the metric system is the world's common language of measurement, and it is to the advantage of our industries, our government, and our consumers to adopt the world's measurement language: the SI version of the metric system.

Note: The spelling used most commonly in the United States is meter and liter. However, the British Oxford Dictionary spelling, metre and litre, also are used. Both the -er and -re endings are correct. Also, the short form for liter is a capital el (L) in the US, but a lowercase el (l) also is used in many foreign nations.