1898-1998 • A Century of Progress

Preparing for a New Century

Chapter Three: The Genius of ASTM

A New Departure

William Cavanaugh, reflecting on the transformation of ASTM during his tenure as executive director, told members in 1985 that “those intimately familiar with the affairs of ASTM for the past 14 years or so would agree that the obvious and pervasive health of the organization today is the direct and traceable result of its ability to anticipate events through planning and to set in motion, in a timely fashion, policies to accommodate those events.” The firm conviction that ASTM was the master of its own destiny, not a passive respondent to circumstances beyond its control, was the essence of Cavanaugh’s philosophy. It enabled the organization to meet the extraordinary challenges of the 1970s and laid the groundwork for major new departures during subsequent decades.

Unlike previous ASTM leaders, Cavanaugh was not an engineer but a management expert who had been appointed executive director-secretary of the Administrative Management Society in 1959, a position he held until 1966. During his tenure, he gained close familiarity with some of the major problems that were beginning to plague American business during those years, notably its unwillingness to adapt its managerial structures and strategies to a much more volatile and competitive world economy. Earlier than most management professionals, Cavanaugh was convinced that any organization’s chance for future success hinged on its ability to streamline its administrative apparatus, develop its core competencies, and deploy its expertise in promising new areas.

When Cavanaugh joined ASTM as director of Field Operations in 1967, its technical committees were overburdened with administrative functions. This called for a new departure to maintain ASTM’s viability in standards development. The Board of Directors took two critical steps in this direction: First, it formulated a strategic plan titled “ASTM in the Seventies,” and second, it appointed Cavanaugh Managing Director in 1970.

“ASTM in the Seventies” was primarily a blueprint for financial consolidation but also reconfigured the organization’s mission and identity. It assessed revenue streams and concluded that ASTM needed a new membership structure and better marketing strategies for its income-generating products, notably the Book of Standards. Most administrative functions were to be performed by the staff, enabling committee members to concentrate on technical standards work. These and other measures initiated ASTM’s transformation from a traditional engineers’ society into a non-profit enterprise dedicated to modern business principles, including process efficiency, responsiveness to changing market conditions, and financial viability.

Cavanaugh played an important role in formulating and implementing “ASTM in the Seventies.” The first item on his agenda as managing director was internal restructuring. Characteristically, Cavanaugh focused on strategic goals and gave staff members wide latitude in implementing the new departure. “The days of passive staff are over; this is a performance staff,” he declared. To measure staff performance, department heads introduced short-range and long-range fiscal projections, production goals, and other managerial systems borrowed from the corporate sector.

New Partnerships

Externally, ASTM reached far beyond its mainstay in industrial standards and entered rapidly-growing markets for consumer products and environmental standards. Prior to Cavanaugh’s appointment as managing director in 1970, ASTM had already launched several initiatives in these areas, highlighted by the formation of Committee F-8 on Sports Equipment and Facilities. Cavanaugh, determined to use ASTM’s expertise in related fields, provided strategic guidance for these activities. In one of the most important programmatic statements of his career, he declared, “The genius of ASTM—meaning the consensus approach to standards—is applicable to a broad range of problems that are only very generally related to our traditional area of activity.” This call for deploying the consensus principle in cutting-edge fields precipitated the formation of new technical committees, including F-15 on Consumer Products, E-34 on Occupational Health and Safety, F-13 on Safety and Traction for Footwear, and F-20 on Hazardous Substances and Oil Spill Response, to name only a few.

As in previous decades, ASTM’s initiatives were closely related to seismic shifts in American society. The 1950s had marked the beginning of the modern consumer age, when millions of middle-class families bought automatic washing machines, electric dryers, home freezers, television sets, and a large variety of other consumer items. American consumer-goods industries remained the undisputed leaders in this sector for close to two decades, but the steadily-growing availability of Japanese and European imports revealed problems with the quality of some American-made products. This trend coincided with the social activism of the late 1960s, which precipitated the rise of a grass-roots consumer rights movement. Activists challenged manufacturers to tackle prevailing product quality and safety problems in cooperation with consumers, but also complained about their inability to match industry’s power and influence in the standards development process. This formed the backdrop to the passage of the Consumer Products Safety Act in 1972, establishing a federal commission with the power to promulgate consumer product standards.

At about the time that ASTM was enjoying a new partnership with consumer advocacy groups, a new regulatory storm gathered on the horizon. The mid 1970s saw a rash of legislation aimed at federalizing the American standards development system—a formidable threat to the voluntary standards system that had prevailed since the early 20th century.

In response, ASTM launched a spirited defense of the voluntary system at several Congressional hearings in Washington, D. C., declaring that the organization’s consensus-building process, which had evolved through decades of committee work on industrial products, was a viable alternative to government-issued standards for consumer products. Responding to critics who charged that the voluntary system benefited major corporations at the expense of other interests, Cavanaugh argued, “We cannot agree that the present standardization process poses grave economic hardships for small business. … There are many small business concerns involved in ASTM. In recognition of this fact, we have done everything possible to keep the cost of participation in the ASTM process at a minimum.”

Furthermore, Cavanaugh was committed to ensuring fair consumer participation in technical committee work. “We must make sure that there is no aspect of ASTM structure that can be interpreted as excluding any qualified person from participating in the consensus process of ASTM,” he urged. “This is the reason we have left our door open by creating the affiliate membership. It is also the reason that we have gone so far as to suspend any meeting registration fees that ASTM has had.” In addition to opening up the formal consensus-building process to consumers, ASTM established a Consumer Participation Fund to finance the participation of consumer rights groups, representatives of homemaker organizations, and others that were heretofore not involved in technical committee work.

ASTM soon accumulated an outstanding record in consumer products standards. Committee F-8 on Sports Equipment and Facilities, a pioneer in this field, issued its first standard test method for football helmets in 1971, followed by a steady stream of new initiatives involving footwear, ice hockey equipment, playing surfaces and facilities, and headgear. The committee also developed F 1446, Test Method for Equipment and Procedures Used in Evaluating the Performance Characteristics of Protective Headgear. Established ASTM committees also contributed to the quest for consumer standards. D-13 on Textile Materials initiated a major activity on the flammability of children’s sleepwear in 1971, when it organized a collaborative study involving sixteen research laboratories.

Organized consumer activism started to wane in the late 1970s, but its effects remain evident. ASTM established mechanisms such as the Consumer Sounding Board, by which consumers could provide input into the technical requirements of standards. The resurgence of the nation’s consumer-good industry during the 1990s was partly a result of major improvements in product quality and safety that enhanced the competitiveness of U. S. manufacturers in global competition.

The environment was yet another area where ASTM established a major presence during the 1970s. As in consumer products, social activism and government intervention were important factors. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, a penetrating analysis of pesticides such as DDT in the food chain published in 1962, helped trigger the modern environmental movement, whose participants were particularly concerned about air and water quality. Federal initiatives soon followed, including the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970 that set standards for automobile emissions. Older ASTM committees, such as D-18 on Soil and Rock and D-19 on Water, that started to work on environmental standards during this era, developed strong relationships with the Environmental Protection Agency. EPA, which was formed in 1970, used ASTM standards for electrical generating plants, petroleum tests, and water as a basis for its own standards. Furthermore, industries with interests in environmental protection solicited the assistance of ASTM, leading to the formation of new technical committees such as F-20 on Hazardous Substances and Oil Spill Response and E-35 on Pesticides.

ASTM also responded to the establishment of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in 1972. Reacting to OSHA’s request that the nation’s engineering and scientific communities participate in the development of federal workplace standards, ASTM convened a conference of interested parties in October 1972. The immediate result was the formation of Committee E-34, Occupational Health and Safety Aspects of Materials, Physical and Biological Agents, and its seven major subcommittees. Committee E-34 worked on such diverse subjects as storage, transportation, and disposal of hazardous agents, occupational exposure standards, medical examinations and first-aid treatment, protective equipment, and control.

Standards development for industrial materials and testing remained ASTM’s largest field of activity. Some of the most significant work was done by Committee F-1 on Electronics, which focused increasingly on semiconductor technology. Building on the development of solid-state amplifiers by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the 1950s, the semiconductor industry quickly became a major growth sector in the American and Japanese economies. Committee F-1 supplied IBM and other major manufacturers with widely-adopted standards for silicone, a material that required precise quality control techniques at the molecular level. The Committee reached a milestone with the Specification for Monocrystalline Silicon Surfaces (F 515) that enabled producers to assess material characteristics such as flatness, finish, and tolerances. Advances in semiconductor technology had been hampered by manufacturers’ reluctance to share proprietary information in this highly lucrative field with competitors. A Bell Telephone Laboratory researcher who specialized in integrated circuit bonding, related: The committee “has been the only place where people concerned with this field could come and really feel free to discuss their problems.” These discussions paved the way for the “third industrial revolution” that transformed the world economy at the end of the 20th century.

ASTM in the Global Economy

The rise of the “new economic world order” of the 1980s and 1990s that transformed modern standards development was an extraordinarily complex process. Economically, it was triggered by the rebirth of Japanese and Western European industry from the ashes of World War II, and by the formation of so-called “tiger economies” on the Pacific Rim during the 1970s. Technologically, globalization fed on new communication systems that allowed instant access to and exchange of information across continents. Politically, the lowering of tariff barriers in North America and Western Europe created vast new markets in which global producers competed head-on. The buzzwords of the new, interdependent world economy were cost efficiency, customer orientation, and the ability to respond quickly to changes in the global marketplace.

Globalization compelled ASTM and its international counterparts to cooperate across national boundaries. In the postwar era, American voluntary standards had reigned supreme because U.S. industries had still enjoyed undisputed leadership in world markets. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), for example, had frequently used ASTM standards as platforms for international standards in key areas such as steel, petroleum, and industrial chemicals. The end of American industrial supremacy and the rise of a multipolar world economy turned international standards development into a two-way street as American standards users paid more attention to the specific needs of emerging markets. ASTM facilitated this trend by continuing to encourage international participation in technical committee work, and by establishing an overseas office in London. It also forged close ties with major foreign standards organizations such as Germany’s Deutsches Institut für Normung (DIN), France’s Association Francaise de Normalisation (AFNOR), the Japanese Standards Association (JSA), and the British Standards Institution (BSI).

International cooperation led to increased awareness of the fact that incompatible standards and certification became trade barriers in the new global economy. In a 1990 editorial in ASTM’s magazine, then-ASTM President Joseph G. O’Grady (ASTM president 1985-1992) commented that “for the free flow of trade, equivalent standards, test data, and certification procedures must be mutually accepted and reciprocal. Where this reciprocity is lacking, American refrigerators and baseball bats sit on foreign docks, devoid of that magic local approval mark—soaking up sunshine and billions of dollars.” Incompatibility was evident in measurement standards, reflecting America’s reluctance to switch from the English measurement system to the metric system. Absent official action, ASTM continued its long-standing practice of using both English and metric measurements in all its specifications, thus helping to break down trade barriers that could exclude products in the global market.

Although these and other traditions enabled ASTM to master the transition into the new global economy, structural changes were necessary to meet the needs of standards users in an increasingly competitive environment. Responding to industry concerns about the relatively slow pace of standards development during the 1980s, ASTM introduced more restrictive timelines that helped technical committees stay focused on deliverables. To further accelerate the standards development process, ASTM formed the Institute for Standards Research (ISR) in 1988. ISR was primarily designed for accelerated standards research programs that exceeded the capacities of the traditional committee management system. Based on a committee proposal for a given activity, ISR developed a plan to fund the required research, contacted potential sponsors, selected appropriate research organizations, and provided continuous support during the research phase. Major activities that evolved along these lines included a unified classification scheme for advanced ceramics and projects on fire standards, degradable polymers, clothing sizing, and a wetlands standards program.

ASTM also initiated new standards-related programs to provide additional products and services to its members and customers, beginning in 1985 with the development of ASTM’s Technical and Professional Training Courses. These courses provide continuing education in the performance and use of ASTM and other standards in areas such as petroleum, plastics, paint, steel, environmental subjects and many other areas.

In 1993, ASTM expanded its services to include a new program on Proficiency Testing. ASTM’s Proficiency Testing Program provides participating laboratories with a statistical quality assurance tool, enabling laboratories to compare their performance in conducting test methods within their laboratories and against other laboratories worldwide. Programs have been launched in metals (plain carbon and low-alloy steel, stainless steels, and gold in bullion), petroleum, plastics, and more.

The construction of ASTM’s new headquarters building in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia, was another milestone along the way toward a more efficient organization. In the late 1980s, it became clear that the old quarters on Philadelphia’s Race Street could not accommodate state-of-the-art office technology that facilitated information management in a modern organization. “We simply exceeded the life cycle of the Race Street building,” a senior staff member later recalled. “The tune-up required to create a more operable environment in that structure would have been cost-prohibitive.”

The new building, which was completed in 1995, provided ultra-modern conference facilities for technical committees, ample work space for headquarters staff, and prepared ASTM to meet the challenges of the 21st century. “The new Headquarters building,” a board member commented, was “a tangible indication of ASTM’s movement toward the future and its responsiveness to the changing environment of standards development.”