An Interview in China

ASTM International President James Thomas (left) and Ms. Liu Zhiyang, editor in chief of China Standardization, conducting this interview.

ASTM President Sits Down with China Standardization Magazine

On a recent visit to Beijing, the staff of China Standardization magazine interviewed ASTM President James A. Thomas. In excerpts from that interview, Thomas discusses the challenges of standards development in the global marketplace, ASTM International’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China, and China’s use of and participation in ASTM’s standards and standardization process.

China Standardization: Mr. Thomas, as we know, you’ve been working with ASTM for four decades since you first joined it in 1972, and you must have witnessed many historical moments. Would you briefly give us an overview of the development of ASTM in the past years? How has ASTM contributed to economic globalization?

James Thomas: The principles which form the basic foundation of ASTM International have not changed. Our commitment to openness, transparency and due process remains as strong as ever. What has changed is the environment within which we operate and the way we conduct our business operations.

Standards are a critical component of trade, and the application of high quality, globally relevant standards is critical to industry success. ASTM International standards are held in high regard in all markets around the world and the participation of technical experts from all countries is critical to our long-term success. …

During my years as president, ASTM International has expanded its reach into many important world economies. We have opened offices in Mexico City, Mexico; Beijing, China; and just recently Brussels, Belgium [and Ottawa, Ontario, Canada]. We have continued to expand our business operations through product distribution partnerships in over 80 countries.

One of my fondest memories is the official opening of our office in Beijing. We began our operations in China as one member of a four-organization consortium but quickly realized the importance of our work in China and made the decision to open our own stand-alone operation. It has provided ASTM a great opportunity to understand the culture and dynamics of the Chinese market, the importance of standards to China as they compete in the global market and to enhance our service level to our growing number of Chinese experts who have joined ASTM technical committees. I am encouraged by our past accomplishments in China, and I am excited about future opportunities to expand our collaboration with key stakeholders.

The globalization of industry and the competition that comes from a shrinking global marketplace will add to the challenges presented to standards developers by our membership. We will be pressed to provide products and services better, faster and at low cost. We will have to find new ways to meet the cycle-time needs of industry as they also try to keep pace with rapidly changing technology. Industry will look to organizations like ASTM to become solution providers.

ASTM International will be positioning itself to add value to global industry not only in the area of standards development but also by offering services such as proficiency testing, training and certification in an effort to improve global competitiveness and support innovation. ASTM and other members of the global standards community must work closely with our stakeholders to understand their needs and to do all that is necessary to meet their expectations. The future will be exciting and challenging as we work to enhance our capabilities to provide outstanding service to a membership base that is global and that demands efficiency. I am confident that ASTM International is properly positioned to meet these challenges.

We all know that ASTM International has been more focused on developing standards in the fields of construction, metal, energy consumption, the environment, etc. In recent years, ASTM has also expanded to sustainability and sustainable development; for example, in 2008, ASTM established Committee E60 on Sustainability. How does ASTM understand sustainability and sustainable development?

The trend toward sustainability has been very important in recent years in both the private and public sectors. The programs in sustainability continue to grow and it’s important that we bring specific sustainability initiatives to the forefront. Sustainability is a very complex subject, which involves environmental, economic and social considerations. ASTM has actually developed a spreadsheet of all ASTM and additional globally relevant standards in the sustainability area. People can visit our sustainability website. They’ll be able to get a broad view of all of ASTM’s working areas and also work done by other organizations in sustainability.

Our Committee E60 that you mentioned is actually the focal point of the sustainability work in ASTM. It develops standards related to the environmental performance and sustainability of building materials, building components, building systems and buildings individually and in aggregate. In addition, it’s working on issues related to the hospitality of green meetings. E60 also has just initiated a new subcommittee on sustainable manufacturing. This subcommittee has four work items under way to help evaluate manufacturing processes for sustainability improvement.

However, E60 is just a very small part of the work that ASTM is doing in sustainability today. We actually have over 30 other ASTM technical committees that are working on product-specific activities in the construction area and energy-related areas. So, it requires a significant focus on coordination, and I think that’s one of the challenges that we will be facing as we move forward.

ASTM traditionally has been an organization that was broken into committee silos. We have committees on cement, concrete, gypsum board, thermal insulation, roofing and many others. But when you deal with sustainability, it cuts across all of these committees. In the past, committees could work in isolation, but now they all need to coordinate their efforts. So that’s a new challenge for organizations like ASTM, not only to coordinate work within its own committee structure, but also coordinate its work outside of ASTM. So sustainability is an important new area of standardization, but one that also provides challenges, so that we can avoid duplication of efforts, redundancy of activities, and we can meet the needs of industry and governments with a solid collection of quality standards that reflect the needs of the marketplace.

ASTM has maintained many cooperative projects in China for some time, and even set up an office in Beijing years before. Also, as early as 1991, ASTM joined hands with the China Association for Standardization to publish ASTM Standardization News in Chinese. Would you talk about how ASTM understands the China market?

China is a dynamic and large market with both domestic and international standardization needs. This makes it difficult to be very specific. Generally speaking, China has become the world manufacturing center where almost all the industries have been developing to some extent. This is very closely aligned with the broad sectors that ASTM International has been involved in for standards development and maintenance for over 110 years. I have observed trends as well.

I know that the Chinese government has been focused on raising its level of understanding and participation in international standardization. This focus has enabled it to achieve growing success in its participation in both the technical committee and policy levels of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Because no one organization provides all the standards which the global marketplace requires for successful operation of a government (in terms of regulation and procurement) or an enterprise, China has also engaged more effectively in other international standards development organizations such as ASTM. Chinese enterprises are leading in this trend. I believe this effort to diversify is beneficial to China and to the organizations in which it is engaging.

Speaking for ASTM, there is evidence of increased membership by Chinese companies and individuals in ASTM, greater utilization of ASTM standards by SAC under the terms of the memorandum of understanding that is in place between ASTM International and the Standards Administration of the People’s Republic of China, and active engagement by Chinese entities in ASTM technical committees.

Currently there are 442 Chinese experts participating in more than 90 of ASTM’s 144 technical committees; over 60 student members have also joined ASTM from China.

Based on the annual report, which is provided under the MOU signed with SAC in 2004, we have reports which document the use of over 1,000 ASTM standards by China. This includes almost 400 adoptions, over 50 standards which were consulted, 549 which are referenced in Chinese regulation, and more than 20 that are normatively referenced.

With a growing number of delegation visits to ASTM headquarters (over 70 delegates have visited ASTM headquarters in 2012 alone), engagement in technical meetings via ASTM’s web-based tools and my observation of an increased number of Chinese participants at various ASTM technical committees … it is reasonable to say that China sees value in learning about and engaging in ASTM. Over time, I have seen Chinese experts not only observing committee activities, but becoming more actively engaged by providing input and even taking leadership roles. (A delegate from SAC 323 on Electromagnetic Shielding Materials, working for the Shanghai Institute for Measurement Technology, is leading a task group within ASTM Committee D09 on Electrical and Electronic Insulating Materials.) As noted, I believe this is mutually beneficial and I encourage this trend to continue.

About the promotion of standards, ASTM has published many documents in digital form in addition to hard copy format. Would you talk about the digital publication of ASTM standards and how to promote standards on the Internet?

ASTM International continues to evolve and grow as both a developer and distributor of standards and related information. ASTM produces standards in multiple formats with 82 percent of all current information distributed to customers electronically. By the end of November 2012, ASTM will complete a major conversion of all standards from SGML to XML data format. We are very proud of this accomplishment since it will enable us to meet the changing needs of our customers more dynamically.

In addition to this project, ASTM is also actively involved in developing videos that will be embedded in our test methods to provide added value to our information users. Our customers and members not only want easy access to data, they also want it delivered at reasonable cost. ASTM is dedicated to providing all information at the lowest cost possible and will achieve this by implementing a range of attractive pricing models. Our goal is to provide ASTM information to the desktop of every engineer that is part of the global industrial community.

The internet has changed the way ASTM International interacts with its customers. All standards are available from our website as individual downloads but the definite trend is to order a subscription package from ASTM, which enhances access and significantly lowers cost. We continue to make improvements to our ordering and delivery processes, all intended to create a positive experience for our members and customers.

This article appears in the issue of Standardization News.