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March/April 2011
PlainTalk

James A. Thomas, President, ASTM InternationalEvolution

Standards as Technical Tributaries

Standardization is not the vertical operation it used to be, when “silo” technical committees developed standards for use within a single industry segment. We live in an era now where societal issues have gone broad and global, where standards are called upon to address wide comprehensive subject areas such as energy, sustainability, transportation and cybersecurity. This is a shift in orientation from vertical to horizontal, and it involves more than the sorting of standards into piles. It requires intelligent planning and selection, the management of actors and activities, mechanisms for sharing information and sometimes a structure in which to house it all.

Standards are already at the heart of smart energy grids and interoperable health information technology systems — frameworks that are designed to provide comprehensive approaches to categorical subject areas. Within these frameworks, standards are the active problem solvers, technical tributaries that flow into larger, more fixed structures.

How will the evolution of smaller issues into larger ones affect the standardization process itself? How does ASTM International rise to this new day as it has to so many others? Let’s take a look.

ASTM International Committee E60 on Sustainability is a large, overarching committee dealing with a large, overarching subject. According to its scope, E60 is “monitoring the public need for standards related to sustainability and sustainable development, and proposing new standards as appropriate.” The committee is also “providing support and services as resources to other ASTM committees on the terms and concepts used to communicate sustainability aspects of materials, products and services.”1 E60’s scope anticipates a virtual smart standards grid for an issue that is dizzying in its complexities, one that embraces multiple technologies, multiple industrial sectors and a global constituency. E60 has also created and maintains a database that references more than 500 ASTM International standards and 300 standards and programs from other organizations that are involved in sustainability, an initiative that is now also accepting the online and public submission of related standards for inclusion.

Committees C26 on Nuclear Fuel Cycle and E10 on Nuclear Technology and Applications are known as ASTM International’s “nuclear committees.” There are, however, other ASTM technical committees that either have standards or will need to develop standards to support the evolving nuclear industry. Our staff is now working with these committees to create a roadmap of standards priorities and opportunities in the civil nuclear energy sector.

“Fingerprinting” is another technique we have developed to identify related standards by matching key words and subject matter. More than 10,000 ASTM International standards are “tied” to other related standards, often across committee lines. It is possible now to look at a standard document summary on the ASTM website and see a list of related standards.

And later this year, we will unveil an enhanced online version of ASTM Standardization News. This new initiative will give website visitors the ability to find news and other aggregated ASTM content (such as new standards and work items, meeting information and publications) in Web pages organized by industry sectors, such as building construction, the environment and sustainability, energy, transportation and infrastructure, and so on.

For over a century, the “silo” technical committee structure in ASTM International has not only served its members well, but through a prodigious output of superior technology, has increased the quality of life for millions of people around the world. It has risen to meet every manner of challenge and need — from steel rails to oil spill cleanups, from medical and surgical materials to nanotechnology. But there is more.

Evolution has been defined as the gradual development of something into a more complex or better form. The term may be esoteric, but evolution is rooted in reality and necessity. It is the expansion of ASTM International from a single technical committee into 142 technical committees that cover more than 90 industry sectors. It is the difference between books and digital data. It is what happens when society expresses a need and the organization rises to meet it, when improving and redesigning operations becomes the modus operandi. Evolution is change.

James A. Thomas
President, ASTM International

Reference
1. See Committee E60’s full scope at http://www.astm.org/COMMIT/SCOPES/E60.htm.

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