Washington, D.C.—The U.S. economy will suffer unless American companies, standards-developing organizations and government agencies join together to realize a more coherent and effective standards strategy, participants at a U.S. "standards summit" agreed yesterday.
More than 300 representatives from U.S. companies, trade and professional associations involved with developing and implementing standards, and federal agencies took steps toward achieving that strategy in the first major U.S. conference addressing those needs. Held in Washington, D.C., as part of World Standards Day activities, the conference was co-sponsored by the Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
Commerce Deputy Secretary Robert L. Mallett told conference attendees, "Today, the United States is the world’s most prolific exporter, strongest competitor and best innovator. Yet, we are jeopardizing our leadership position...by not paying full attention to the important details of international trade: measurements, standards and laboratory accreditation."
Mallett challenged the private sector to develop an effective approach under ANSI leadership "to level the international playing field for American businesses." He also stressed the need to strengthen technical assistance programs to advance international standards development and enhance U.S.-foreign technical cooperation. There was broad agreement about the urgency of the situation and the need to improve public-private sector cooperation on standards policy.
Dana Mead, chairman and chief executive officer of Tenneco and 1998 World Standards Day Chair, picked up on a common theme heard throughout the summit about the unfair advantage that many participants claimed were available to European standards. Mead warned participants, "If we can’t bring down trade barriers between the EU and the U.S.—two areas with so much in common—we cannot expect to do so in areas where cultural and economic differences are much greater, in countries like China, Japan and India."
The animated discussion about the perceived European advantage involved the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the organizations widely viewed to be the "international" standards bodies.
Evangelos Vardakas, director of the Directorate General for Industry in the European Commission, told conference participants that the European standards system had served an important purpose: to unify the European market and to abolish barriers to trade among 18 European nations. Noting that the ISO and IEC could be more responsive, he said that the United States had a clear choice to make: either to work within ISO and IEC and try to improve the system, or to stay outside and compete with that system but forego the right to criticize them.
That invitation was deemed worth serious consideration by other participants who suggested that the time might be ripe for U.S. organizations to work with other countries in proposing significant changes in ISO and IEC procedures and requirements to the point of "reengineering" those organizations. According to Keith Termaat of Ford Motor Company, that could include giving two major European standards organizations (CEN/CENELEC) a single vote in ISO and IEC ballots rather than permitting individual countries to vote. The United States representative, ANSI, receives only a single vote. Changing the composition of the European membership would have a significant impact on the organizations’ dues structure, an issue that would have to be addressed.
An alternative approach for dealing with concerns about ISO, IEC and ITU was suggested by George Arnold, director of standards and intellectual property at Lucent Technologies, who advocated pursuing bilateral and regional standards alliances, while remaining active in the international organizations.
It was also suggested by Henry Line, vice president of Global Product Standards for AMP Incorporated, that a national standards strategy may not be needed because of the wide diversity of industry sectors. He added that the existing U.S. voluntary standard system currently works effectively for most industries. He emphasized that standards must be market-driven; lead by the private sector with government support; voluntary; all inclusive to ensure that small- and medium-sized businesses participate in the process, and flexible to include supplier declaration of conformity assessment.
Another key issue addressed involved alternative concepts for funding the work of standards developing organizations, which typically rely on the sale of final standards and the voluntary involvement of companies to support the actual standards writing process. The concept of federal government support for broad-based standards needs—including training and education, export promotion activities, and facilitating online access to information about standards and standard-setting activities—proved to be popular.
Providing government funding to support ANSI’s participation in international standards activities and replacing income lost if its standards are offered for use received generally positive reviews. ANSI President Sergio Mazza warned, however, that even with such support, "There is no free lunch. We need to be sure that those who benefit from standardization pay their way."
NIST Director Ray Kammer told participants that if the federal government were to provide greater support to standards developing organizations such as ANSI, congressional action and legislation would be desirable to ensure some reliability and continuity.
Among the other issues and major points addressed at the conference were:
The summit also included speakers who reported on successes in developing standards approaches for particular sectors. One example of success involves an emerging technology, intelligent transportation systems. The U.S. Department of Transportation and U.S. companies have collaborated to build an infrastructure of standards to support crash avoidance systems, advanced traffic control, and other applications. As a result, "The United States now has a very strong national standards program in intelligent transportation technologies," said Michael Schagrin, a standards manager with the department.
One sector that has had sustained success in its dealings with traditional international standards organizations is the U.S. construction machinery industry, according to Gerald Ritterbush, manager of standards and regulations at Caterpillar, Inc. Since 1968, industry representatives have participated actively in ISO, with administrative support from the Society of Automotive Engineers. "Essentially all of the critical standards contain USA technology," said Ritterbush.
Conference co-sponsors at ANSI and NIST agreed to promptly consider another suggestion offered at the summit: to organize a similar session to address critical issues in "conformity assessment," the testing and certification systems established for implementing standards.