The Basics

What Is a Standard?

A standard is a document that defines a product, policy, procedure or material. 

In general, it is legally valid and provides the user with a set of guidelines.  It is usually an engineering document and is often used in trade.  Normally standards are created according to a protocol (set of rules) and may be modified, again usually by an agreed-upon process.  And ideally it’s non-monopolistic, that is, in support of free and fair trade practices.  It may be created by a government, by an alliance, or by a standards-developing organization.  Its use (or lack thereof) may have legal implications.

Standards are usually recognizable by the alphabet soup of the identifying number.  If someone asks for a document and gives you an identification number like MIL-STD-100 or ASTM-B633 or SAE-J1926/1, you’re looking at a standard.  Remember, these numbers are created by engineers so you can bet that they are filled with information for those in the know (and very confusing for everyone else!).

The basis for standards activity is simple. A uniform, consistent product or policy (namely, a standard) will enhance quality and reliability. Money is a broad example of standards. So is language. The adoption of a uniform gage standard for railroads in the United States of America was instrumental in developing our industrialized society. The Association of American Railways' recommended practice B9 gage specification (originally dated 1895) is the oldest active standard in the U.S. 


How Do Standards Get Developed?

In the U.S., our primary set of compliance documents are Industry Standards, created by collaboration. The activity is volunteer and based on consensus. Standards are usually created by committees of interested parties, which can include members from industry, government and the public. Bob Toth, standards specialist, has identified 632 trade associations, professional and technical societies, and other private sector organizations in the U.S. alone that either develop standards themselves or work with other organizations that do (NIST Special Publication 681). 

Standards are written descriptions of the criteria for a specific product, process, test, or procedure that is agreed to by formal processes. ANSI, the American National Standards Institute, acts as the umbrella organization in the U.S. to coordinate standards activities and assure that a thorough and well-balanced procedure is maintained throughout the standards developing process. The principles adhered to are those of openness, due process, and balance. 

ANSI can call for participation on the work of creating or revising standards. ANSI may also review a standard and adopt it as an American Standard if it is warranted to be of sufficient interest or importance. ANSI additionally represents the U.S. at the regional and international levels (i.e., participation in the International Organization for Standards, ISO). 

Additionally Standards Development can occur independently of ANSI.  It may be part of a formal standards-developing program, like the Aerospace Industries Association's NAS documents (National Aerospace Standards).  Or it may be on an ad-hoc basis, like standards created by consortium like the W3C's (World Wide Web Consortium) Internet standards.


How Are Standards Used?

Standards are used in manufacturing and commerce. They allow for products that are safe, meet quality requirements, and have consistent results when used correctly. Some things you use that are made or function according to standards include cardboard boxes, toys, electrical devices like computers, and your cell phone. 

Standards can be used as a competitive tool, or as a tool for protectionism. However, the global trend in standards is currently towards harmonization, towards developing a single standard for a product, process, or material that will be recognized and accepted internationally. This is an admirable goal, but a difficult one. The standards world is struggling to deal with harmonization and the challenges that it presents.