NOTE: This Scoping Study discussion paper was open for community feedback as part of the 2021 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap consultations. Submissions are now closed.

Purpose

Recognising that precision measurement capability will be crucial over the next decade, the 2018 Research Infrastructure Investment Plan1 nominated precision measurement as one of several national research infrastructure (NRI) capability areas to be explored through scoping studies. The purpose of the scoping study was to “explore the precision measurement capability needed to position Australia as globally competitive, especially in quantum capabilities and instrumentation.”

In 2020, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment engaged the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF), in collaboration with Microscopy Australia (MicroAU), to undertake an initial scoping study with a focus on:

  • describing the existing precision measurement NRI landscape;
  • identifying key gaps in current NRI capability;
  • securing broad agreement for the focus of a new precision measurement capability; and
  • providing a feasible approach to establishing a new precision measurement NRI capability.

This paper is intended to be used to test the need for a national scale precision measurement capability more broadly with the research sector and stakeholders in the 2021 NRI Roadmap process. The paper reflects the outcomes of consultation to date from initial scoping work and does not represent the views of the Australian Government.

Background

Precision measurement plays a central role in the modern world, being key to the efficient and reliable operation of the services, suppliers and communications that society depends upon (e.g. mobile phones, financial transactions, the internet, the Global Navigation Satellite System, magnetic resonance imaging, radar etc). Moreover, industry relies on precision measurement to ensure the products they manufacture meet national and international regulatory and quality control standards.

Metrology, the science of measurement, and the precision measurement instrumentation and infrastructure that underpins it, lies at the heart of all science. Accordingly, precise and accurate measurement underpins the cutting-edge research and technological advances that will enable the industries of the future. For example, sensors (devices that measure inputs from the environment and converts that input into data for interpretation) based on precision measurement technologies (e.g. optical, photonic, infrared, microfluidic, and quantum technologies) have application across diverse industries from defence, resources, and engineering to medical devices, healthcare, chemistry and the life sciences.

The consultation found that realising these industrial opportunities requires establishment of the precision measurement research infrastructure, methodologies, and quality systems that will enable researchers to validate the measurements taken by novel measurement technologies and translate this novel technology into integrated devices. Further there is growing demand for precision measurement capability at the national research infrastructure (NRI) level, beyond what can be offered at the institutional or organisational level.

“Precision measurement is becoming increasingly important with the rapid development of quantum technologies and will become vital over the next decade.”
– 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap2

Scoping Study – Key Findings

The scoping study found that, as a consequence of the central role of precision measurement capability in science, existing precision measurement instrumentation and infrastructure is embedded across Australian NRI. However, there is particular alignment with the National Measurement Institute (NMI), ANFF and MicroAU. Further that a new cross cutting NRI capability, leveraging and building upon existing NRI initiatives, could address the gaps identified in the scoping study and, thereby, meet the needs of research and industry.

Through brief consultation with stakeholders, the scoping study identified the following key gaps in Australia’s current precision measurement capability that hinder the ability of NRI projects and initiatives to support precision measurement research. These findings provide a sound basis for further consultation with the wider research sector. Your input on the key questions raised in this paper will be considered in the development of the 2021 NRI Roadmap.

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Capability Gaps

Communication and Collaboration across NRI capabilities

Stakeholders consulted for the scoping study noted the lack of a cohesive picture of precision measurement NRI, resulting in a lack of understanding and awareness of the capabilities that are available and how to access them. While there are efforts within existing NRI to increase engagement between precision measurement NRI, research and industry, there is scope for improvement in the broad dissemination of new knowledge and, potentially, new translational innovations e.g. new devices, new ways of measuring and new standards. With some important exceptions, National Measurement Institute (NMI) had a relatively low profile with those consulted. However, there is much to be gained from closer engagement with NMI given its role in maintaining the primary measurement standards for physical, chemical and biological measurements, and ensuring the international recognition and acceptance of Australia’s measurement system.

Stakeholders considered that important precision measurement hard and soft infrastructure needs, located at the intersection of National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and other national research and scientific capabilities, remained unaddressed or under-addressed. This was, at least in part, attributed to inadequate linkages between some NRI initiatives, with engagement often occurring via local pockets of collaboration and national conversations at the corporate level.

Australian researchers noted that a broad, shared understanding of the commercial development pipeline of multinational and national instrumentation companies, and the commercial capability gaps, is currently lacking. Without co-ordinated, collective and structured engagement between NRI capabilities and key instrument vendors, critical understanding of unmet market needs is inconsistent.

Capability Gaps

  • Insufficient understanding and awareness of available precision measurement NRI capability across the nation, and incomplete communication and collaboration across precision measurement NRI.
  • No national entity through which Australian researchers and industry can engage with multinational and national instrumentation companies involved in precision measurement instrument development.
  • Barriers to engagement and collaboration between researchers and NMI.

Translation of Precision Measurement Technology

The development of novel precision measurement technologies provides an opportunity to create a long-term, high-impact technology industry in Australia. While proof-of-principle demonstration of new precision measurement innovations at laboratory level occurs at present, stakeholders identified a key capability gap in affordable access to equipment, expertise and advice, that would overcome barriers hindering the ability of researchers and SME developers in industry to engineer robust, compact, reliable precision devices for testing and validation in advance of commercialisation.

While prototyping facilities and expertise (mechanical, electrical and software engineering), are available to some extent within NCRIS projects and institutionally located NRI, with respect to some technologies, these capabilities are: (1) not as widely appreciated and understood as they could be, (2) not connected into a national precision measurement device prototyping network, (3) have hard and soft infrastructure gaps and (4) are not specifically designed to enable prototyping of precision quantum devices. In addition, a number of those consulted indicated that a research-focused testing facility for Space and Aerospace applications constituted a capability gap.

Maintaining quality during research translation, including in the fabrication of prototype devices, involves quality assurance, quality control and metrology. Access to precision measurement NRI, particularly from industry, to characterise a material or device, or bring innovations from the laboratory to viable products, ideally require that capability to be embedded within a quality culture to ensure accuracy, reproducibility and traceability. The absence of embedded quality, and in some cases an accredited quality management system, in translational facilities was viewed as a capability gap. NMI’s role within Australia’s National Quality Infrastructure could be leveraged through the proposed NRI.

Capability Gaps

  • Affordable access to a platform of facilities offering equipment, expertise and advice for rapid device prototyping.
  • Prototyping facilities specifically designed for and targeted to devices utilising quantum technology.
  • A research focused precision assembly and testing facility to bridge the translational gap between research devices and tested prototypes for space and aerospace demonstration.
  • Support to embed quality, and in appropriate facilities a quality management system, across the NRI

Precision Measurement Tools, Techniques, and Instrumentation

Australia already has the necessary knowledge, capability and resources to develop new precision measurement tools and techniques for national and international markets. As such, there is a potential for growth of a precision instrumentation industry in Australia, by supporting inventors of new instruments to focus on areas where there is a shared strength, interest and need. With advanced measurement technology, instrumentation development and manufacture being niche areas in which Australia can play a leading role, a new precision measurement NRI capability has the potential to energise nascent industries.

The robust metrology necessary to ensure the quality of new products for industry and customers and facilitate scale up for growth must also be developed, to avoid impeding the development of the industry. To do this, new methods of measurement must be created as well as new ways to implement measurements and interrogate data from those measurements. At present, performing the precision measurements required to characterise micro/nanofabricated materials and devices can be complicated by the limitations of existing measurement instrumentation and techniques (including for in situ measurement), their location and a dearth of off-the-shelf systems able to undertake the required measurements. For example, at present, this gap in metrology capability at the leading edge of micro/nanofabrication is being inadequately addressed in an ad hoc fashion. Systematically addressing unmet needs in metrology to support science and technology, including in rapidly growing life science areas, requires co-ordinated engagement with instrumentation vendors, researchers and instrumentation developers. Stakeholders cautioned that while it may be possible to purchase a device off-the-shelf that can make a specific type of precision measurement, there may not be a sufficient market for that instrument and its development may not be commercially viable. Thus, support to identify where there is a market and where there is a business case for development is a current gap.

While there is existing precision measurement capability resident across the NRI landscape, there remains an opportunity to leverage this foundation, bridging gaps for the development of enhanced precision measurement capability to support research and industry.

Capability Gaps

  • Incomplete linkages for enhanced collaboration for precision measurement instrument development.
  • Barriers to identifying the commercial potential of a new precision measurement instruments or technology.
  • Capability gaps within existing precision measurement NRI due to capabilities focusing on maintaining their current capabilities at state of the art.

Next Generation National Frequency Network

Australia lacks a distributed, ultra-precise, next generation frequency capability to enable new and emerging technologies. A national distribution network would provide Australian researchers and industry access to ultra-high precision time and frequency measurements, significantly increasing the accuracy they can attain. Users in quantum technologies and astronomy would benefit immediately.

Making the network secure would address current concerns about the risks associated with the distribution of information through Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS). While most current users of accurate time and frequency access GNSS signals directly, GNSS networks suffer from interference and are at risk from failure or threats, including malicious attacks, solar flares and space weather. Overseas examples (USA and UK) indicate the NRI capability would provide a knowledge and infrastructure base that can be leveraged to develop sovereign capabilities, including to support defence needs. NMI’s expertise in delivery of Australia’s existing time base could be leveraged.

Capability Gaps

  • Lack of access to a guaranteed and reliable network of high precision time and frequency standards leading to overdependence on GNSS, which has considerable vulnerabilities.

Education, Training, and Skills Deficit

Clear gaps in current capabilities include personnel with the technical experience and expertise to (1) support users to employ cutting edge precision measurement instrumentation and techniques; and (2) facilitate translational development of new sensor technologies, devices and instruments into integrated prototypes and minimum viable products. There are related skill deficits in understanding the quality culture, for example in establishing, operating and maintaining a quality management system within translational prototyping facilities.

NMI provides numerous short training courses to build the quality culture in biological, chemical, physical and legal metrology. There are currently few formal training opportunities in metrology offered by Australian universities.

Capability Gaps

  • Lack of personnel with skills, experience, and expertise in the translational development of, for example, new sensor technologies and fabricated devices into integrated prototypes and minimum viable products.
  • Shortage of skilled technical personnel to support the precision measurement technology and instrument development.
  • Lack of expertise in quality systems and management in NRI.

Proposed Solutions

Precision measurement underpins the cutting-edge research and technological advances that will enable emerging industries. A precision measurement NRI capability could provide Australian researchers with a multifaceted platform for precision measurement research and its translation into industry to build competitive advantage.

It was proposed that a new precision measurement NRI capability could address demand for significant and coordinated precision measurement capability (both cutting edge instruments and expert technical personnel), beyond what can be offered institutionally, coordinating key Australian stakeholders in metrology and leveraging existing NRI to promote collaboration and drive research, innovation and industry.

In response to the key precision measurement NRI capability gaps identified, it was proposed that a new precision measurement NRI capability could deploy its resources in three key capability areas:

  • Enhancing Access to Precision Measurement NRI – access for researchers and industry to specialised open-access metrology facilities, state-of-the art measurements, and expert personnel.
  • A Networked, National Rapid Prototyping Platform – access to rapid device prototyping facilities, underpinning capabilities, and quality infrastructure.
  • Precision Measurement Tools and Techniques – development of new validated precision measurement instruments and methodologies.

These capability areas should be supported by cross-cutting foci in Communication, Coordination and Collaboration, and Education and Skills Development (see Figure below).

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