Standards-making at Web Speed

There’s an old cliché about molasses in January. It moves very, very slowly.

The same can be said for the committee-based processes by which industry standards have traditionally been developed, particularly when product manufacturers promoting competing approaches or technologies are involved. In some cases, depending on the level of disagreement a proposed standard incites, the standard-making process can be measured not in months, but in years.

At Underwriter’s Laboratory Inc. (UL, www.ul.com), Northbrook, Ill., engineers are now using the Internet as a way to speed up the standards development process. UL’s Collaborative Standards Development System (CSDS), a Web-based system launched last Oct. 29, is expected to slash the average time required for standard development and revision from 18 months to about 38 weeks, says Michael Palm, UL Group Engineering Leader. That’s a reduction of more than 50 percent.

UL, a not-for-profit, product-safety testing and certification organization, has developed more than 850 product safety standards, with participation by about 30,000 individuals worldwide.

Prior to the launch of CSDS, UL developed standards the old-fashioned way. Proposals for new or revised standards were sent to participating standards committee members and other interested parties, who were given a designated period of time to respond with comments and suggested changes. Once these came back, appropriate revisions were made, and the process was repeated. “On some of the easiest cases, there might only be a couple of rounds of revisions, but on the extreme end, it could take a dozen or more changes, depending on how controversial a topic might be,” Palm relates.

In recent years, UL had begun using e-mail to help expedite the process, but some of the activity had remained paper-based, Palm says, with documents being sent back and forth through the U.S. and international postal systems.

With the launch of CSDS, the procedure remains the same, but the lag times associated with back-and-forth e-mail or paper-based mail are eliminated. All documents related to a proposed standard are posted to the CSDS Web site (csds.ul.com), where they are immediately and simultaneously available to all interested parties. “As soon as something gets published by us, an e-mail goes out notifying everybody associated with that standard that there’s a new document for them to look at,” Palm explains.

Committee members, standards subscribers and others can log into the site at their convenience to view documents, make comments or vote on draft standards. The documents are posted in hypertext markup language (HTML) format and cannot be changed by participants. But participants can post comments regarding the overall document, or they can direct their comments with pointers to specific sections or paragraphs, Palm says.

Each comment is time- and date-stamped, and is identified with the name and affiliation of the individual who posted it. These posts can then be viewed by other participants on the Web site, who may add their own comments, and, if they choose, start a discussion thread on another person’s comment. “If you strongly disagree with what others have posted, you can actually try to change their minds with your own comments,” Palm observes.

The immediacy of the CSDS process not only saves time, but it makes the discussion and collaboration process more effective, Palm believes. Under the old e-mail and paper-based system, participants didn’t know what comments were being made about a document until UL responded with a subsequent mailing. But with the CSDS, Palm says, “you have interaction happening from the beginning, and you get a better discussion of what’s going on.”

Other CSDS features include automated e-mail notifications that remind participants when deadlines for comments, votes or other actions are nearing. And when people have ideas for changes to an existing standard, they can submit those ideas through the system, and be notified of each stage as the proposal works its way through the UL system, Palm adds. CSDS Web site visitors can also see lists of scheduled standards committee meetings, together with names of individuals to contact if they wish to attend.

So far, the CSDS system has been generally well accepted, says Palm. As of mid-January, around 40 standards projects had been launched on the system, which will be used for all future UL standards development activities.

Wes Iversen, wiversen@automationworld.com

More in Control