Published on February 27th, 2017 | by Mark Williams

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Metrology is breaking out of its mould

Professor Mark Williams talks to The Manufacturer about breaking the Metrology mould…

Metrology, the science of measurement, is more commonly associated with engineers and manufacturers concerned with quality and reliability. It’s a long established and critical aspect of product design and development, but as technology develops other professions are catching on fast to its wider potential. The result is that this traditional science is increasingly being seen everywhere from crime scenes to archaeological digs.

Take the abundance of forensic analysis in today’s television programmes as an example; it rarely touches on the role that modern engineering can play in real crime scenes. While there is still a place for the microscope in forensic work, I know from my own experience that laser scanning, computer tomography, 3D printing, and advanced 3D visualisation can collect and analyse extensive evidence for crime investigation teams.

The non-invasive nature of these technologies is ideal for recording and documenting fragile evidence, for analysis, and for making clear presentations to juries. At WMG, we have been working with pathologists and hospital staff, helping crime scene investigators and the police in a number of homicide investigations to aid successful prosecutions.

Data from cameras, tape measures, and other standard equipment can be time consuming to gather and unreliable in scientific terms. There is also the pressure on investigators to release a property back to its owner, or to reopen a public facility as soon as possible after a crime has been committed. Techniques such as 3D laser scanning can capture millions of data points very quickly, using a Cartesian coordinate system that helps to document and model a real-world environment. The result is a 3D ‘point cloud’ that can be used to recreate a virtual model for future analysis.

This virtual crime scene can be populated with further forensic information, physical evidence, and digital links to witness statements and photos to create a realistic model that can be shown in the courtroom, providing invaluable contextual information for the jury.

Micro-CT scanning can also provide 3D analysis of objects involved in what are known as ‘sharp force injuries’. We’ve had a great deal of success in tool-mark analysis and weapon-wound matching, a developing area within forensic pathology, which helps to establish the weapon class used to commit a homicide, or to link a particular object to a specific crime.

I have also been able to see first-hand just how useful these technologies can be for the heritage sector. Our precision scanning technology, normally used to solve high tech engineering problems and help create new product designs, was able to reveal that archaeologists searching a shipwreck had found an extraordinarily rare silver coin called an Indio. The rarity of it is such that it has legendary status as the ‘lost’ or ‘ghost’ coin of Dom Manuel.

Non-invasive scanning and evaluation, and the fantastic visualisation that we can gain with technology such as our 3D power wall, has enabled archaeologists to find out more than they previously thought possible, without causing any damage to precious artefacts. We’ve assisted with some extraordinary items, from ancient Babylonian tablets to Michelangelo bronzes, and even the virtual reconstruction of a Roman fort.

As an academic and engineer by background, working in collaboration with such a diverse range of partners to find solutions to real challenges is always exciting. When you add the fact that by pushing boundaries, and applying our skills and technology to new areas, we can have a real impact society, it is fantastically rewarding and shows that the field of metrology has come a long way.

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Professor Mark Williams is leader of the Product Evaluation Technologies (PET) and Metrology Research group at WMG, University of Warwick.

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