General Engineering Introduction/Standards

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Sometimes new engineers are asked to participate in a standards committee. These meetings can be very depressing. Old engineers can drink too much, scribble nonsense on the flip charts and argue. Young engineers can display a technical exuberance similar to a ball rolling down a hill.

Most standards grow out of older standards. Completely new standards appear when similar requirements appear over and over again across a wide range of projects, technologies or innovations.

There are two main types of standards committees: industry and government. The ISO is an international, government related standard creating organization. The American National Standards Institute ANSI is a non-profit that sits on the fence between industry and government. It advocates voluntary standards and matches industry standards to government standards. Pure industry standard organizations can be competitive. They are often non-profits that are formed out of supply chain or industry trade groups. A well known example is UL Labs. These organizations compete to become the recognized "standard leader" in a particular industry area. If successful, they make money hosting conferences, selling documents and certification testing.

Standards evolve through these stages in the market place or internally within government organizations.

Compatibility[edit]

Compatibility means nothing technically. The concept has been muddled by salespeople to the point that it has no technical meaning. The terms backward compatible and forward compatible still have meaning. The terms "Compliance, Conformance, Interoperability and Harmonization" below are all compatibility terms.

Compliance[edit]

Engineering products are often shipped with the claim that the product complies with some standard. The trademark of some standards organization may appear in the product literature or it may be stamped onto the product itself. But two devices complying with the same standard may not work together.

Most standards have options. To comply with the standard means to implement one of the options. Two products may implement different options and thus have no chance of working together. This is the first level of "compatibility" and is often called the "bleeding edge" of technology.

Imagine companies: A, B and C have 90% market share. Imagine the three companies see that a standard would create a larger market for all of them. They get together to form a standard that has three options 1, 2 and 3. Option 1 is company A's technology, Option 2 is company B's technology and Option 3 is Company C's. These companies reveal competitive secrets to each other. They discourage competition by making access to the technical details of the standard very expensive.

Magazines, trade associations, supply chain organizations, testing companies will then begin reporting on this standards compliance by forming a matrix which would initially look like this:

Option 1 Option 2 Option 3 Option Best
Company A X
Company B X
Company C X

Conformance[edit]

The "Option Best" in the above table is typically the combination of the best features of all three companies. This will evolve rapidly as the companies share information that was formerly kept secret.

Eventually all companies will do all options. These products have the flexibility that the standard calls for. All options are possible. Switches or software allows configuration to support options. A product that conforms clearly has a much better chance of working with other company products. But there are no guarantees. Products that conform are commonly called "leading edge" technology.

Conformance testing is something that non-profits will charge for. Non-profits will pay a lot of money for the "standard" which contains all the details and then set up tests to see what is going on. The non-profits then begins selling these test results, holding seminars, releasing tutorials on best practice, etc. Some times a new standard clearly fits into a single existing non-profits area of expertise. Other times there will be competing non-profits for this business.

Conformance testing means that the companies are meeting the "letter of the standard", but the standard may be incomplete, unclear or have conflicting requirements. These issues don't appear until customers begin trying to connect company A to company B. If these issues can not be resolved, the technology will never graduate out of the engineered domain. Technicians will never have a chance to become involved, because the technology remains unique.

Interoperability[edit]

When devices from different companies work together as described by a standard, they are said to "interoperate." Unfortunately, standards organizations may have no economic incentive to test interoperability. This means that the non-profit testing labs have a chance to make money.

Company A might work with B and B might work with C but Company A might not work with Company C. Despite compliance certification, customers can not be guaranteed that things will work together. Generally, company service departments will work with customers to solve problems. This is called the "conservative" edge of technology.

Interoperability testing means that every company has to be tested with every other company or a group of the rest of the companies. The option tested at this point is usually the "best" option. This can result in a table that initially looks like this:

Company A Company B Company C
Company A X
Company B X
Company C X

Once everyone is working with everyone else, then the standard moves into the harmonization stage.

Harmonization[edit]

Harmonization is the goal of all standards committees. Once similar standards have evolved in different countries or different industries, the goal is to harmonize them. Reported interoperability problems are researched and the standards are revised. Customers become comfortable and make their own selections without referring to the standards. They just purchase a DVD writer without worry about which standards it supports. Harmonization generally results in explosive growth because the "masses" can understand and use the technology.

Harmonization typically begins the process of maturing the technology. This is where governments, the military and space agencies begin creating their version of the standard. Companies may begin adding features. Left unattended, the standard will grow old. Almost all mature standard committees are continually putting out new versions as a result of continuous harmonization.