The joys of standardization

Oct. 1, 2011
What are you doing on October 14th? Perhaps heading to your local cinema to enjoy the remake of 1984 dance-movie Footloose on its opening day? October

What are you doing on October 14th? Perhaps heading to your local cinema to enjoy the remake of 1984 dance-movie Footloose on its opening day? October 14 is also World Standards Day. Go ahead and raise a glass to ISO, the International Standards Organization based in Geneva, Switzerland, and its worldwide partners, including the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), headquartered in Gaithersburg, Md. Don't forget to praise the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) while you're at it.

I admit a strange appreciation for international standards — the painstakingly crafted guidelines that allow products and processes to work the way they're supposed to. It's comforting to know that really smart and dedicated people around the globe are creating standards that allow “stuff” to work the right way. Most often, standards run seamlessly in the background of modern life, ensuring that everything functions smoothly when plugging in a lamp, making a phone call, or driving through an intersection. In the industrial world, adhering to international standards helps guarantee that manufactured products work across borders. After all, other countries are both our suppliers and our customers in this global economy, so the predictability of component and machinery operation is paramount. Hence this year's Standards Day theme: Creating confidence globally.

Two exciting areas of standards development are underway at this very moment. One effort — ISO 11156:2011, Packaging - Accessible design — provides a framework that accounts for the different physical and sensory capabilities of users. The idea is to ensure that packages can be opened not only by people with various disabilities, but also by the elderly and those with no disability at all. This standard is sorely needed. When is the last time you sliced your hand trying to open one of those awful clamshell packages? The Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that these frustrating packages are responsible for 6,000 trips to the emergency room each year due to lacerations and stab wounds from either the packaging itself or the tooling required to pry it open. We can only hope that ISO's efforts will make a difference.

The other hotbed of standards activity involves the emerging electrical Smart Grid, which predicts user behavior and responds with perfectly metered power for reliable and economical service. NIST and the European Union's Smart Grid Coordination Group (SG-CG) recently announced a partnership. Both organizations have mandates to coordinate development of a standards framework for these intelligent grids. The new collaboration aims to ensure that standards on both continents will have as much in common as possible, so that grid-connected devices can be designed in similar ways. Such global cooperation is truly worth celebrating.

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