There was a US Federal Trade Commission workshop held in 2019 that recently made news again in July 2021. It’s called “Nixing the Fix: a Workshop on Repair Restriction”. Here is the gist of the concern: manufacturers are not creating products with standard parts, or their design is created so it’s difficult for consumers to repair. And this is considered a problem. That got me thinking about standards when designing. When should we use standards and where do we look to find them? More after this brief introduction…
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I mentioned that “Nix the Fix” workshop in the introduction. I’ll put a link to more information about it in the podcast blog.
There are standards for a lot of things related to product design. They’re written by public organizations or governments. Standards define commonality. They can define the size, shape, and characteristics of a product, including ergonomic design. They can define or provide guidelines for our manufacturing process or installation of a product. And they can even get into test methods and acceptance criteria for those tests. And, still, other standards give guidance for how data is analyzed and treated, related to production or sampling of products. Add to that the other standards for business processes like the ISO 9000 series of standards (that gets into management systems) and the Project Management Institute offering standards for project management. and we’ve got a whole lot of standards out there.
Standards are developed by a committee of experts which can be representatives of certain industries, public groups, and private groups. Standards are published with consensus. They are routinely reviewed for updates to keep them current to state of the art, or to at least consider. Standards can get revised or withdrawn. Standards are important for several reasons.
They define commonality and establish quality measures and expectations. They allow more manufacturers’ components to be used interchangeably. Electrical outlets are different between the US and Europe, but we can buy an outlet converter that will work successfully throughout either Europe or the US, and they could be made by multiple manufacturers. USB connections are built to international standards and are universal in design, so no matter who makes it and where I decide to use it, it’s going to work.
Since standards set a level of quality and adequacy for machines, products and structures, it’s a designer’s responsibility to at least research them. Here’s an example. Say we’re designing a new trailer for our new concept rocket/car/boat hybrid. Even if there is no standard for our brand new technology, we could still use standards to help us get started with our designs. If we do a basic search for standards, we find that there is an active U.S. military spec that covers four wheeled tandem axle type trailers for really large military operations. If we open it up, it lists all sorts of specifications: welding, electrical, adjustment mechanisms…there’s even a section about reliability and maintainability specs. Even if our new design isn’t exactly the perfect fit for this type of trailer, we can use it as a baseline or even adopt some of it for our new design. It also lists other standards which might be applicable for our design. If we decided we wanted to use aluminum, we should look up the American Welding Society’s welding code for aluminum. Of course, we need to design for our particular use case.
We can think of standards as an engineering history of what worked and what’s been needed in the past. They’re a great resource to understand.
Who issues these standards? There are a lot of standards-issuing organizations. Some are international and some are specific to regions and countries. These businesses create standards: ASTM (the American Society for Testing and Materials), SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers), and ISO (the International Organization of Standardization). Standards become code or regulations when governments adopt them or when it’s part of a business contract. For example, ASME (the American Society of Mechanical Engineers) in the US are legally enforceable in the US. They’re not necessarily enforceable in other parts of the world. Other international regions would have their own sets of standards. These businesses create codes: ASME, BSI (British standards), BIS (Bureau of Indian Standards), and DIN (the German Standards).
The way I know to search standards is just becoming familiar with the standards issuing organizations within the field of work I’m involved in. But sometimes it’s useful to know friends in other fields. My sister designs engineering systems for architectural firms, like air handling and HVAC system. She calls those systems the ‘life of the building’, which I think is a really cool way to think about it. She mostly works in large manufacturing facilities and hospitals. Now, I was working in disposable products that were to be stored in a building with a controlled environment. My team was trying to define a window of temperature and humidity requirements for the storage of our parts. Well, I asked my sister and she pointed me to a regulation that she has to follow for temperature and humidity of those types of buildings. Now I had a current architectural standard we could reference for what type of environment my disposables had to endure during storage, and we could use that as a source for our requirements.
What’s today’s insight to action? We can look at standards as a library of information at our disposal to use as fits our designs. Even if they don’t fit our design, there may be quality, reliability and test method ideas you can derive from them. We always need to be aware of what’s legally required by wherever we’re selling our product for use, or through whatever contracts we may be signing with purchasers and suppliers. And let’s keep an eye on the “Nixing the fix” conversation; there may be additional regulations and design restrictions we’ll have to comply with in the future.
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