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Standards review, standards bearers.

As ASABE members, most of us are very familiar with engineering standards because we frequently use them to guide us through the design process. According to the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM), "A standard is a common language that promotes the flow of goods between buyer and seller and protects the general welfare."


Standards are important for many reasons. For example, engineering standards:

* Provide intechangeability between similarly functional products and systems manufactured by two or more organizations, thus improving compatibility, safety, and performance for users.

* Reduce the variety of components required to serve an industry, thus improving availability and economy.

* Improve personal safety during operation of equipment and use of products and materials.

* Establish performance criteria for products, materials, or systems.

* Provide a common basis for testing, analyzing, describing, or informing regarding the performance and characteristics of products, methods, materials, or systems.

* Develop a sound basis for codes, education, and legislation and to promote uniformity of practice.

* Provide a technical basis for international standardization.

* Increase the efficiency of engineering effort in design, development, and production.

Historically speaking

The idea of standardization is not new. Cylindrical stones were used as weight measures in Egypt at around 7000 B.C. English nobility used the length of their body parts to establish standards; for example, in 1120, King Henry defined the "ell" as the length of his forearm. The city of Boston made brick size standard in 1689, stating that it was a crime to manufacture bricks in any other size than 23 X 10 X 10 cm (9 X 4 X 4 in.).

Eli Whitney (1765-1825), an inventor and mechanical engineer well known for creating the cotton gin, is referred to as "the father of standardization" because he brought mass production to the United States. The federal government awarded Whitney a $134,000 contract in 1798 to manufacture 10,000 identical muskets. Though his idea of a "uniformity system" was initially met with resistance, Whitney proved that standardized parts with the same specifications could be used interchangeably in any musket.

Milestones in "sameness"

Widespread development and implementation of engineering standards have come about in the past century. The devastating Baltimore fire of 1904 showcased the need for standardization. Although fire trucks came from as far as New York City to assist with the blaze, any truck outside of the city of Baltimore was useless to fight the fire because the "foreign" hoses would not fit the fire hydrants in the city. The Baltimore fire destroyed more than 1,500 buildings over approximately 70 city blocks and ruined all power and communications systems in the city. City leaders had addressed this issue when a large fire in Fall River, Mass., in 1928 was controlled because the standardization of hydrants and hoses enabled fire trucks from 20 neighboring towns to help control the fire.


Mass transit also showcased the need for standards. In 1927, the American Association of State Highway Officials, the National Safety Council, and the National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or NIST) created a national code for colors. Prior to this date, green on traffic signs meant stop in some states and go in others! Today, there are more than 95,000 standards in use in the United States alone and approximately half a million in use worldwide (

Organizations for standards development, maintenance, and dissemination

The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) was founded in 1898. ASTM is "a not-for-profit organization that provides a forum for the development and publication of voluntary consensus standards for materials, products, systems, and services" ( ASTM has members from more than 100 countries; members serve on committees in charge of developing and disseminating standards on a wide variety of subjects, for example, consumer products, biotechnology, forensic science, and physical and mechanical testing.

The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) was formed in 1916 when the American Institute of Electrical Engineers (now IEEE, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.), the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers (AIMME), and ASTM got together to establish a national organization to coordinate the development of industrial and engineering standards, and to provide a clearinghouse for the standards developed by each member society.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was founded in 1947 to provide individual countries membership in an international forum for the development of standards. The mission of ISO is to encourage the development of standardization and related activities in the world in order to facilitate international exchanges of goods and services and to provide governments with a technical base for safety, health, and environmental legislation ( ISO is best known for its 9000 and 14000 standards; these refer to groups of standards involving quality management and environmental management, respectively.

Categorically speaking

According to George Dieter, author of Engineering Design: A Materials and Processing Approach (1999), engineering design standards fall into three broad categories: testing methods, performance, and codes of practice. ANSI cites eight types of standards: basic, product, design, process, specifications, codes, management systems, and personnel certification (

To locate standards that will be of use to the artifact in design, one can consult any of the four major sources of standards: government, professional society, trade association, and company.

Government standards include those from:

* CPSC: Consumer Product Safety Commission

* OSHA: Occupational Safety and Health Administration

* USDA: United States Department of Agriculture.

Professional society standards include:

* ASABE: American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers

* ASTM: American Society for Testing and Materials

* ASME: American Society of Mechanical Engineers

* SAE: The Engineering Society for Advancing Mobility in Land Sea Air and Space.

Trade associations include the Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Institute (ARI) and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA). Companies that have their own engineering standards include General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Boeing.

From a legal standpoint

Standards are usually recommendations and guidelines that are not legally enforceable unless the standards are incorporated into codes. Although this is true, if you fail to follow current engineering standards, you can be found liable if you are sued. Thus, using engineering standards in the design process is very important. Following the most up-to-date standards will not insulate you from lawsuits but will ensure that you hold paramount the safety of the public. This approach represents the best that you can accomplish from a technical and ethical standpoint as an engineer.

ASABE member Marybeth Lima is associate professor, Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, Louisiana State University; Baton Rouge, USA;

RELATED ARTICLE: Teaching Standards

Marybeth Lima

Mark Twain once said, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." In teaching students about engineering standards and their relationship to engineering design, my concern is that we are providing students with the equivalent of Mark; Twain's hammer. Standards are important because they provide students with instructions with which to design a device, process, or system. Standards provide a student with the knowledge for understanding the parameters necessary to successfully complete a design and are especially useful for students just learning to design a specific artifact. However, teaching engineering standards should-go beyond teaching students where to find standards and how to use them. We also must teach students frameworks for understanding so that students can take engineering standards and appropriately place them in the context of the design process. There is much more to the design process than effectively executing engineering standards.

For example, playground design is a standards-driven process due to critical safety concerns with children at play. We conduct community design of public school playgrounds, in which the ideas, desires, and expertise of children, parents, teachers, and community members drive the design process until all of us agree on the parameters of the design problem (how the problem is framed). Only after items like budget, theme, central play activities, skill sets to be brought to the process, skill sets that kids will develop on the playground once it is in use, etc., have been decided do we begin to look at engineering standards. It is my belief that engineers tend to jump immediately to standards because they are quantifiable and straightforward. Many times, however, framing a problem is neither quantifiable nor straightforward. Students must be taught that framing the problem (painting the picture in broad strokes) is a critical activity that takes place before using engineering standards (painting the details).

Once we begin using standards, we realize that they are not 100 percent applicable in every situation. There are many gray areas in engineering, and although engineering standards are not typically gray, their application can be. Knowing how to negotiate these situations involves the art of engineering judgment. It is my hope that we can expose students to such situations so that they can practice their skills in judgment.

For example, the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have established playground safety standards. These standards, like most, are voluntary, and consist of recommendations and guidelines that should be followed for playground design. One state responded to these standards by passing a law that all playground safety standards be implemented in all public playgrounds. Because the cost of bringing playgrounds fully into compliance was prohibitive, many playgrounds were removed, which resulted in the unintended consequence of leaving children with no places to play. This may be "going too far" in applying design standards. Most states enforce playground safety through a "standard of care," which requires removal of "priority one hazards"--those that are possible, probable, and can cause grave injury. The standard of care means that each playground should have a comprehensive safety program established; the standard of care does involve some level of judgment on the part of engineers and playground safety inspectors.

If students are taught engineering standards, the context into which they integrate and the metacognitive processes in which to consider their use, we teach students that there is more to engineering than Mark Twain's hammer and nails.
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Author:Lima, Marybeth
Publication:Resource: Engineering & Technology for a Sustainable World
Date:Sep 1, 2008
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