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Setting the Standards PUBLIC ACCESS

In Lieu of a King's Foot, a Complex, Sophisticated System Smooths the Mechanical Aspects of Contemporary Life.

[+] Author Notes

Belinda Collins is director and Waiter Leight deputy director of the Office of Standards Services at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md..

Mechanical Engineering 122(02), 46-52 (Feb 01, 2000) (7 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2000-FEB-1

In lieu of a king’s foot, a complex, sophisticated system smoothens the mechanical aspects of contemporary life. According to experts, we expect our computers to have interoperable parts that the monitor will work with the modem and the printer as well as the processor, and that we will not have to rewrite parts so that they will work together. ANSI is the US member body in ISO and hosts the US National Committee of the IEC. ASME and other US standards-developing groups lay claim to being de facto international organizations because many of their US-developed standards are used around the world to supplement government regulation and procurement actions. The ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code is used widely, while the National Fire Protection Association’s Life Safety Code forms the basis for building codes in the United States and Canada. The technology transfer act requires that agencies report when they do not use available private sector standards, and instructs federal agencies to participate in the development of private sector standards that are relevant to their missions.

As we embark on the “Naughty Oughties”—without further debate as to whether we have begun a new millennium and a new century—we may look back with some astonishment at the technological advances over the past 100 years.

During that span, we have moved from the horse and buggy era to space vehicles and all manner of “high-tech” products that have shrunk the world and improved our quality of life. As we pay tribute to the creative genius of the scientists and engineers who brought forth these wonders, we might also consider the important contributions made by standards to the technology that will dominate life in the 21st century.

Webster’s unabridged dictionary lists about two dozen definitions for the word standard,” including the concept of an agreed-upon model, criterion, or test that prescribes a level or quality viewed as proper or adequate for a given purpose. Although the king’s foot once defined a needed measure of length, he couldn’t be relied on to be there to provide that standard whenever needed. It is said that Henry I of England defined the ell, an ancient yard, as the length of his forearm, a less-than-adequate artifact for daily use. Yet, surely there were more reliable and useful physical standards of measurement to permit the construction of the Egyptian pyramids and other massive structures thousands of years ago. And, just as surely, we know that in 1689, Boston required that all bricks be exactly 9 × 4 × 4 inches, in order to rebuild the city rapidly after a devastating fire. Such standards are essential for specifying the characteristics of parts that must fit together to make a pyramid, a building, or a space station.

In 1904, a fire razed large section of Baltimore. Over a 30-hour period, more than 1,500 buildings burned down and fire companies came from as far away as New York to help combat the blaze.

Unfortunately, many of the reinforcements were useless because their hose couplings differed one from another—and many did not fit the Baltimore hydrants. This was indeed a wakeup call for establishing standards for compatibility and interoperability, terms that are now part of our lexicon. The demand for compatibility stemmed from an understanding of the importance of safety. Earlier concerns for compatibility, such as the adoption of standard track gauges for railroads, often reflected a desire for convenience, by not having to change trains repeatedly when traveling through several states or local jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, many of the reinforcements were useless because their hose couplings differed one from another—and many did not fit the Baltimore hydrants. This was indeed a wakeup call for establishing standards for compatibility and interoperability, terms that are now part of our lexicon. The demand for compatibility stemmed from an understanding of the importance of safety. Earlier concerns for compatibility, such as the adoption of standard track gauges for railroads, often reflected a desire for convenience, by not having to change trains repeatedly when traveling through several states or local jurisdictions.

Belinda Collins is director and Walter Leight deputy director of the Office of Standards Services at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md.

Standards also prescribe performance or quality characteristics. There still may be villages where everyone knows everybody else, and where each can judge the quality of workmanship and efficacy of available products. In most of today’s world, however, societies and products have become far too complex for individuals to be able to make competent judgments about each item needed for daily life. We expect our computers to have interoperable parts, that the monitor will work with the modem and the printer as well as the processor, and that we will not have to rewire parts so that they will work together. As a result, we have seen the rise and proliferation of many different types of organizations to describe, test, evaluate, and recommend courses of action in myriad product and service sectors. These are the standards developers, conformity assessment practitioners, code authorities, and government regulators who give us the requisite assurances that we receive “our money’s worth” when we buy products; that they will perform as expected; and that our health, safety, and the environment will be properly protected.

In the United States, standards for the most part are developed by the private sector, but governmental bodies also promulgate mandatory standards (regulations), as well as specifications for the products they wish to purchase. Of great practical importance is the contrast between a performance standard, which specifies what a product is supposed to accomplish, and a design standard, which details the composition of a product and how it is to be made.

As a general rule, performance standards are preferred over design standards to allow greater flexibility in product design and development, and to foster innovation. Some companies may dictate the standards to be used in them, particularly for unique aspects of products, but most U.S. standards are based on a consensus process in which developmental committees consider many points of view. Standards mandated by governmental regulators usually aim to protect health, safety, and the environment; those developed in the private sector are voluntary in a dual sense: in that their use is optional, and that they are developed through efforts contributed on a voluntary basis. The public and private sectors both develop standards for products, services, and systems. Many standards deliberately provide specifications for protection of health, safety, and the environment as an integral element of the final product.

We expect our computers to have interoperable parts, that the monitor will work with the modem and the printer as well as the processor, and that we will not have to rewire parts so that they will work together.

As many as 50,000 U.S. voluntary standards currently specify a vast range of products and processes. Many describe the quality or performance to be manifested by the product; many cover dimensional attributes, and others prescribe test methods for determining whether a product actually conforms to the stated standard. Still other standards address marking or labeling, to identify conforming products, and many more help to protect health, safety, and the environment. Other than the proprietary standards that are developed and used only within individual companies, common interests in a given sector or subject often lead nationwide groups to develop standards that become national standards.

The hundreds of U.S. standards-developing organizations fall into four categories: professional .societies, such as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, whose members seek to advance their professions; trade associations, such as the Electronic Industries Association and the American Gas Association, which promote the products of their membership; testing and certifying organizations, such as Underwriters Laboratories and Factory Mutual, which produce their own standards and use the standards of other organizations; and solely standards-developing organizations, such as ASTM. Formerly known as the American Society for Testing and Materials, ASTM accounts for more than 20 percent of all U.S. voluntary standards. With a membership of thousands from the United States and other countries, the organization develops. many kinds of standards for a wide range of topics, many of which are used around the world.

The National Fire Protection Association is also in this fourth category, and is responsible for developing and maintaining the National Electrical Code and the National Fire Codes that are adopted by state and local governments as well as by other countries. Major challenges for many standards organizations are the need to recover the costs of developing standards— often by the sale of documents—and to preserve their intellectual property rights.

Most countries have only one standards-developing organization, and its output is the national standard. There are literally hundreds of developers in the United States, and the American National Standards Institute offers a mechanism through which developers may choose to have some or all of their output identified as American national standards.

ANSI is a federation of corporations, standards developers, governmental agencies, academics, and consumers; it fulfills a vital coordinating role for the entire standards community. ANSI offers accreditation to organizations that meet specified criteria and accredits product certifiers. In conjunction with the Registrar Accreditation Board and the American Society for Quality Control, it helps to register assessors for International Organization for Standardization 9000 and ISO 14000, which are the international quality and environmental standards, respectively. ANSI also offers training programs as well as other educational services.

Within the recent past, bodies of nations, especially in other parts of the world, have decided to promulgate regional standards; a prime example is the set of regional standards adopted by the European Union.

To achieve a single market, European policy makers realized that competing national standards would have to yield to a regional or European system. As a result, the European Union countries developed, and now incorporate into regulation, regional standards to support certain directives. On a still larger scale, formal international organizations seek to develop standards that will be accepted around the world. The best known are those of the ISO and the International Electrotechnical Commission, which calls itself “the international standards and conformity assessment body for all fields of electrotechnology.”

ANSI is the U.S. member body in ISO and hosts the U.S. National Committee of the IEC. ASME and other U.S. standards-developing groups lay claim to being de facto international organizations because many of their U.S.-developed standards are used around the world to supplement government regulation and procurement actions. The ASME Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code is used widely, while the National Fire Protection Associations Life Safety Code forms the basis for building codes in the United States and Canada.

There is also a hierarchy of U.S. governmental standards, starting with those at the local and state levels, and proceeding to federal, regional, and international. U.S. government purchasing specifications and regulations are often based on voluntary standards developed in the private sector. The 1995 National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act requires that federal agencies consider use of existing voluntary standards, either domestic or international, in lieu of “reinventing the wheel.” When he was Secretary of Defense in the mid-1990s, William Perry pioneered the effort to reduce the Department of Defense practice of writing new specifications instead of taking advantage of available standards. The technology transfer act requires that agencies report when they do not use available private sector standards, and instructs federal agencies to participate in the development of private sector standards that are relevant to their missions.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology has the task of coordinating standards and conformity assessment activities of the federal government with the private sector and with state and local governments. NIST accomplishes this, in part, through the Interagency Committee on Standards Policy, which is composed of designated standards executives from all agencies concerned with standards, and through reporting on agency standards-related activities.

There are various international standards organizations, some established by formal treaties, and others private sector. The International Organization of Legal Metrology, which develops international recommendations, is an example of an intergovernmental treaty organization. It produces standards for devices that rely on measurement used for legal purposes, such as scales, meters, and medical devices. The signatories of the treaty that formed the organization have agreed to adopt its recommendations for use domestically.

ISO and IEC are significant nongovernmental organizations, whose standards are often considered to be international, but their member bodies are not bound by international treaty to adopt or use the standards.

The private sector organizations that have many foreign members or whose standards have been adopted in many parts of the world often consider themselves international organizations. This has given rise to extensive and animated debate regarding the merits of this point of view, especially since the World Trade Organization, under the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, promotes the use of “international standards,” but does not define the term. Countering arguments come from many nations that do not formally participate in the activities of self-declared international organizations, and perhaps do not even have individuals from their countries as members. Nonetheless, there is widespread sentiment that ISO and IEC are the principal international standards organizations, and that all countries should strive to adopt their standards for use globally.

The United States is stressing the importance of the developmental process, rather than the originator. Thus, the United States has argued that reliance on the consensus process, with its commitment to openness, balance, transparency, and due process, should be the hallmark of an “international” standards development organization.

The technology transfer act requires that agencies report when they do not use available private sector standards, and instructs federal agencies to participate in the development of private sector standards that are relevant to their missions.

In a move to break the impasse over a common meaning for “international,” four major U.S. organizations—ASTM, ASME, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the American Petroleum Institute—have instituted pilot projects under the auspices of the ISO whereby they would develop and maintain standards for the ISO in selected areas. ASME, for example, is working on an umbrella performance standard within ISO for boilers and pressure vessels under which its own widely used code and comparable foreign standards might be found acceptable.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association is pushing for harmonization of competing electrical practices, to allow the option of major national deviation within an international standard. The harmonization would allow for differences between 220 and 110 volts, and between 60 and 50 hertz alternating current. The NEMA proposal recognizes that installation requirements and established practices are not going to change, regardless of an international standard. The group proposes a way forward within the International Electrotechnical Commission.

The standards system is the lubricant for the machines of trade. Standards developers may be considered to be middle men who facilitate the industrial process. The characteristics of an ideal standards developer—the criteria that form the basis for accreditation by ANSI—include openness, the opportunity for anyone to participate given a stake or an interest in the subject of a proposed standard, and transparency, the timely availability of information on proposed standards actions.

Another trait is called “committee balance,” which means the process gives adequate representation to all interests (such as producers, users, government, consumers, and academics) so that no single interest can dominate or force decisions. Due process assures that all viewpoints are considered on the basis of merit, that decisions are made by consensus (not necessarily by unanimous vote, but by a sufficiently large majority as specified by the organization), and that there is a mechanism for appealing to a higher authority in the event of alleged failure to follow the rules. Bodies that meet these criteria are often referred to as “consensus organizations.”

The most important concept by far is the need for active participation by companies and all other stakeholders, not only for purposes of balance, but to ensure consideration of the points of view that underlie the need for standardization.

Those who participate in the development of standards ensure that the resulting documents will enable their products to compete in the marketplace. Failure to participate in the deliberations of domestic or international committees surrenders decision-making to one’s competitors. Of course, there are costs associated with participation, including travel and salaries. The potential penalties in lost sales and services from not participating generally far exceed the cost.

Economic success today depends heavily on international trade, which implies a need for using common standards and acceptable demonstrations of conformity to those standards.

Certain forms of conformity assessment, some much more rigorous than others, may be invoked to provide the assurances demanded by customers. These include sampling, inspection, product testing, product certification, personnel certification, accreditation of testing and calibration laboratories, management system registration (for ISO 9000 and ISO 14000), and recognition programs. These activities may be performed by federal, state, and local agencies, but private sector organizations account for the preponderant majority.

The conformity assessment activities needed as follow-ups to the use of standards are also subject to inefficiencies and redundancies, so steps are under way to achieve an effective coordinated approach. For instance, the National Cooperation for Laboratory Accreditation, which grew out of a joint initiative of NIST, ANSI, and the American Council of Independent Laboratories, is an effort to coordinate accreditation of testing' laboratories in the United States and assure that it is compatible with international standards.

There is an ever-increasing recognition of the importance of standards and codes to technological progress. Today the United States faces four key challenges: maintaining the strengths of its pluralistic system while eliminating needless duplication of efforts; developing coordinated national positions for effective international representation; ensuring that the best U.S. technology and practices are promoted into globally used standards; and reducing, through the use of advances in information technology and telecommunications, the time and costs of developing standards so the process will not impede product development.

NIST has participated with representatives of the major U.S. standards developers in seeking to devise a National Standards Strategy that will be able to serve the United States in achieving these goals during the 21st century.

Copyright © 2000 by ASME
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