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July/August 2008
PlainTalk

Standardization and Innovation

Making the Connection

We write often in this column about standards’ impact on trade. We count our standards blessings, noting that they not only bring health, safety and sustainability to individuals and to whole economies, but order and dynamism to the world trading system. But what of innovation? For years we’ve heard the argument that standardization stifles innovation. Others say it does not. The issue, however, is not all that simple.

If we are speaking of newer technologies or products with short shelf lives, the rising tide of evidence says standards are having more and more of a positive impact on innovation. Standardization and innovation are more closely linked because technology isn’t what it used to be, and for the first time in the long history of standardization, a place in R&D is, in some quarters, part of the process. This is different than it used to be, when R&D and standardization were thought of as consecutive activities.

Innovation might be loosely termed as something new. How companies deal with new ideas, new products or new processes can make all the difference in the world. Literally. Companies that understand how standardization helps them in the marketplace also understand a basic principle of staying ahead of the competition: getting new ideas into standards early in the game. Regular review and revision of standards also ensure that product enhancements and technology advancements get promptly incorporated. Standardization, like innovation, never rests.

Standardization is also appearing in earlier and earlier stages of product development because, like technology, products aren’t what they used to be. Seldom now does the concept-to-shelf operation take place under one roof. There are millions of products today whose components are designed and manufactured in different locations, assembled in another, packaged in still another and distributed worldwide. For products like these, measurements, materials and multiple regulatory requirements have to be planned and standardized at an early stage.

Standards organizations are mindful of this shift in timing. A report by the German Institute for Standardization (DIN) has noted that standardization is necessary to and often forms the basis for successful innovation. The study contends, among other things, that companies that participate actively in standards work have a head start on their competitors in adapting to market demands and new technologies.

The basic concept that participating in standardization ensures success in the marketplace has not changed. What is shifting is the timing for standards projects. At what point does a new idea need to become a standard or incorporated into a standard? Companies must decide this for themselves, and obviously, the answer isn’t the same for all companies or all industries. But the question of when to put the new idea into the process of standardization must be an integral part of planning and product development. For some companies, the coupling of standardization and innovation will be a new idea. And that’s the whole point.

 

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International

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