Dr Alan Rawle provides first-hand experience and a personal view of what it takes to be an expert member of a standards committee. He also explains how documentary standards are developed and why he believes they remain as important as ever in the maintenance of safe and robust industry practices
There are two types of commonly encountered industry standard and these need to be distinguished: materials standards and documentary standards. Materials standards are produced by bodies such as NIST. They enable verification or calibration of systems and are a physical material or specimen – the standard yard, for example. Documentary standards, on the other hand, apply consensus methods and methodologies to tests and techniques used in industry and academia. Standards of both types allow a common platform for international trade and promote confidence and trust.
Standards are actually more pervasive than one might think. When you put a litre of fuel in your tank, then it’s important that it is actually a litre. That’s why if you look carefully at the pump then you’ll find a sticker showing when it was last calibrated – and it’s really important when buying fuel at today’s prices!
Standards actually go back a long way. The modern standards movement, however, owes much to Sir Joseph Whitworth (of Whitworth screw fame) who talked in 1841 about standardising the vast number of different candlesticks and candlestick holders then present.
This led on to the formation of the British Engineering Standards Committee whose main consideration was the standardisation of iron and steel sections for construction. As a consequence the number of structural steel sections in common use was reduced from 175 to 113, while tramway rails were reduced from 75 different types to just five. In 1903, this was stated as saving over £1 million annually. In the US, train rail manufacturers had been importing rails from Europe as these were deemed to be more consistent and adequate for needs. Standardisation here saw the formation of ASTM and its first committee A-1 on “Steel, Stainless Steel and Related Alloys” in 1898.
The ISO standard with which we are probably most familiar, ISO 9000, arose from military standards through BS5950 that were originally in place to try to prevent munitions exploding in factories. So all in all standards can benefit everyone and result in cost savings.
As an industry expert member of a standards committee, I am involved in all aspects of standards implementation, which could range from writing the standard itself to just providing comment and input to the appropriate committee. For example I’ve recently written and negotiated through the ASTM ballot process, a standard on zeta potential measurement of proteins. At present I am coordinating an international team of experts writing a standard on Small-Angle X-Ray Scattering (SAXS), as Convener of WG10 of ISO TC24/SC4.
In the case of ASTM, I vote on behalf of Malvern Instruments. I also take advice and comment from my colleagues and present it to the committee. Another important aspect of my role is to make sure that all my colleagues are aware of the relevant standards and their impact on our business. Product development is influenced to a lesser or greater degree by the appropriate standards in each area.
All standards are arrived at through consensus. ASTM, for example, is based on one member one vote and all negatives must be addressed in the balloting process. The ISO system gives one vote for each country, each vote being held by the national standards body for that country i.e. BSI for UK, ANSI for the US, DIN for Germany etc. So in reality it’s a very democratic system. However, the timescales and the conservative nature of the development process may mean that for novel technologies, standards will be ‘behind the times’. They can never be leading edge as they reflect expert opinion and experience.
Ultimately, in order to have an influential voice, every member needs the acceptance and respect of the other experts on the committees. This most usually results from people having confidence in one another, often through long experience and interaction and the development of mutual trust. While this might appear at first to make the standards setting community difficult to break into, it is necessary to appreciate that the committees are, to a large extent, made up of internationally recognised leaders from industry and academia.
Each and every suggested change to a standard undergoes discussion, suggestions, longer discussions, writing and rewording. Many might struggle to believe how difficult it is to define a term such as ‘dustiness’ or ‘nano’, and also the legal and industrial implications of these definitions. One of the, perhaps valid, criticisms of standards development (both material and documentary) is how long the gestation period for each standard is.
Standards activities have to be forward-looking but reliant on established and robust experimental procedures and techniques. Typically though, they can only deal with that which is established and that for which the market (or legislation) has created a need. Committees are only formed within ASTM and ISO following internal agreement within previously established groups, and unpaid volunteers like me offer to work within the newly established committee. Committees can and will die if they’re not supported or if the technology they are supporting dies. All standards are living documents and the regulations call for periodic review. When it comes to evaluating existing standards for adequacy, it is the market that decides whether a standard has value or not.
From a personal perspective, the work we did in ASTM Committee E56 on Nanotechnology, trying to define a selection of terms around ‘nano’, stands out as an exciting example of the standards development process. For the ‘nano’ definitions project, the number of on-line meetings was high. The use of a Wiki type approach to standards writing, where invited experts can use a password-protected, online platform to comment on a section, sentence or even a word, at any time of the day, wherever they may be in the world, is helpful. The standard then evolves without having to keep going endlessly ‘round the loop’. The amount of interaction can be as complex or straightforward as any individual wants. This provides a much better standard in both the short and long term.
Standards are relevant to all walks of life. A standards expert is involved in both the development of standards and the promotion and integration of standards within the work place. Current standards development practices embrace online technologies that can make the process of review more efficient. Ultimately, standards are tools to ensure the most efficient methodologies are shared across communities and it is the adoption of each standard by that community that defines its success.
ASTM A century of progress http://www.astm.org/HISTORY/index.html
The author: Alan Rawle, Applications Manager, Malvern Instruments Inc.
Alan has more than 30 years’ experience in various aspects of technology. He has spent many years working on the ISO TC24/SC4 Particle Characterisation committee which has been responsible for such standards as ISO13320:2009, dealing with laser diffraction, and ISO 22412:2008, for dynamic light scattering.
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