Plain Talk

The Value Factor

Achieving Excellence in ASTM Standards

ASTM International standards are developed by experts who represent the elements of society that are likely to be impacted by those standards. This sounds a lot simpler than it is.

Developing standards this way involves a lot of rigorous debate, contention and refereeing. You cannot put a group of diverse, dedicated people in a room and have it any other way. But it is this very broad, inclusive representation that gives the ASTM International standard its intrinsic value. At the end of the day, when the issues have been sorted out, when there is agreement and consensus has been reached, each participant in the process has had an impact. A wealth of technical knowledge and experience has been explored and tested.

Regulators and the regulated, multinational corporations and small business innovators, consumer advocates, testing laboratories, retired engineers, bench scientists, college professors, airline pilots, physicians, experts of different nationalities and cultures, and experts from varied backgrounds and disciplines infuse the process with challenge and disparate desires. The road to excellence is bumpy.

But excellence in the ASTM International standard is achieved time and time again, and is manifested in our medical devices, our aviation fuel, in the steel that upholds our buildings and in the cribs that hold our children. It strengthens the regulations that govern us and the practices that sustain our planet. The ASTM standard sets the bar high. To the bridge builder in a far corner of the world and to the building contractor down the street, it is synonymous with quality, relevance and value.

And all because a few people, over a hundred years ago, had the idea that the principle of openness would lead to a full, broad, rich infusion of talent, and that there was value to be had from what has been called in ASTM the “spirit of cooperative antagonism.”

That value has increased with the years. For instance, a standard developed in the spirit of cooperative antagonism by a full, balanced contingent of interests, has credibility and integrity. It is less likely to be biased, or unduly influenced by a single driving force, or beneficial to only a small segment of society. Strong forces exerted by producers and users are more likely to be balanced by other participants who will have no financial, political or personal gains in the outcome. It is less likely to disadvantage or favor one entity or one group over another.

When universal viewpoints are represented in a standard, the standard is more universally applicable. It can do the most good for the most people. This increases its value exponentially, and places it on the international stage, to function fairly in world markets and reduce technical barriers to trade.

No one element of society has a monopoly on innovation or technology. Competence and invention do not reside solely in one corporation, one research institute or one testing laboratory. Advances in technology occur simultaneously and multilaterally. When advances and new developments are shared and pooled, the quality of the content of a standard is raised to a level that has heretofore not existed. The standard becomes an advance in technology in itself. The participants gain insight and knowledge from their colleagues, a bonus and an added value for their companies and agencies.

Finally, there is the concept of ownership. When a standard has a large pool of “owners,” i.e., its developers, it is more likely to be revised, improved and updated more regularly. There is pride in ownership, and when the owners are numerous and varied, the care and feeding of the standard is borne by a “village.” A standard in motion has more value than one that is static.

The ASTM International standard, aside from its technical excellence, is a symbol of cooperation and collaboration by people and forces that might, under other circumstances, be forever at odds. It is the triumph of objectivity over bias. It is productivity by agreement. Its value is inherent, and inestimable.

James A. Thomas

President, ASTM International

This article appears in the issue of Standardization News.