Physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have built the world’s most precise clock.

Specific times, such as when parts will be delivered to a just-in-time assembly process, and elapsed times, such as the duration of a machine cycle, are critically important in manufacturing. Without the ability to track activity and measure performance as a function of time, manufacturing capability and efficiency would be severely compromised.

Although it isn’t likely that assemblers will need to schedule just-in-time parts deliveries to an accuracy of ±1 second over 3.7 billion years, it is interesting to note that physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have built an enhanced version of an experimental atomic clock that that is now said to be the world’s most precise clock.

Based on a single aluminum atom, the new clock would neither gain nor lose one second in about 3.7 billion years, according to measurements to be reported in Physical Review Letters. “This paper is a milestone for atomic clocks,” says NIST postdoctoral researcher James Chou, who developed most of the improvements. You can read morehere.

Clocks have myriad applications in areas other than manufacturing. The extreme precision offered by these optical clocks is already providing record measurements of possible changes in the fundamental constants of nature. Next-generation clocks might lead to new types of gravity sensors for exploring underground natural resources and fundamental studies of the Earth. Other possible applications may include ultraprecise autonomous navigation, such as landing airplanes by GPS. As electronics engineers continue designing CPU chips with ever-faster clock rates-beyond the 3 to 5 gigahertz common today-they will eventually need timing standards near this level of accuracy.