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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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17.4 Standards and their role in innovation

Standards were originally related to units of measurement. The first ‘standard’ was the Egyptian royal cubit, which was made of black granite and was said to be equivalent to the length of the Pharoah's forearm and hand. This was also subdivided into finger, palm and hand widths – one ‘small cubit’ was equivalent to six palms. But because the human forearm was the master reference this meant that the cubit varied in different parts of the world. Over thousands of years agreement over units of measurement gradually spread. It was really industrialisation that brought a pressing need for better standards of measurement, both for parts of products and for manufacturing processes.

Essentially the incentive to standardise was economic. Standardised parts and methods of production meant that products could be made more accurately and efficiently, and the user could rely on their quality and performance with greater confidence. Furthermore maintenance and repair could be carried out more easily and cheaply by the replacement of one standardised part with another.

An early set of standards for the manufacture of a product were established in connection with steam boilers. Victorian engineers produced boilers of various shapes and sizes and therefore different performance characteristics. This resulted in uncertainty over how a particular boiler would perform and there were many boiler explosions and some deaths. There was pressure from insurance companies to reduce such risks by persuading engineers to conform to given standards for the manufacture of boilers and insurance cover was made conditional on compliance with manufacturing standards.

In 1901 the institutes for civil engineers, mechanical engineers, naval architects and the iron and steel industries formed a committee with the remit to standardise iron and steel sections for bridges, railways and shipping. One of the first standards was for tram rails, which led to a reduction in the number of different rails manufactured from 75 to 5. During the First World War standards were established that enabled aircraft to be made faster and that resulted in more reliable aircraft. In 1929 the standards committee became the British Engineering Standards Association and was granted a royal charter. Then in 1930 the association became the British Standards Institution (BSI) with a brief to oversee the establishing of national standards for the manufacture of a range of products. During the Second World War the standards for the manufacture of tins saved 40 000 tonnes of steel a year.

In 1947 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) was founded to establish international standards for a wide range of industrial products.

Nowadays standards are agreed by committees drawn from government departments, research organisations, manufacturers and users. And standards aren't fixed but evolve to reflect changes in technology and society. By 2003 there were more than 14 000 international standards applying to film speeds, paper sizes, the dimensions of credit cards and the symbols on car dashboards. In the same year there were over 20 000 active British standards (1400 new standards were agreed in 2002 alone). As well as products, standards are developed to apply to ways of doing things – for example, the ISO 14000 series of international environmental management standards. Along with the information contained in patents, standards also represent a repository of know-how collected from wide experience of using products and processes. Some products in different countries nowadays are required by law to be tested against particular safety and performance standards before they can be offered for sale to the market. In the UK these include smoke alarms, emergency lighting, baby's dummies, fire extinguishers and fireworks. There are also many voluntary standards agreed upon by industries and trade associations because such standards can lead to more cost-effective production and maintenance, as well as greater customer confidence in the products concerned. For example the British Standard document (BS 1363:1995) for 13-amp fused plugs, socket-outlets, adaptors and connection units consists of four separate documents that specify the design, construction and performance characteristics of each product's components and details on how to test a new product design for compliance with the standard (Figure 66). The BSI Kitemark (itself a trade mark) shows that a product was initially tested and is regularly tested against appropriate standards. It has become a symbol of safety and quality for any product that carries it. Recently much effort has been devoted to agreeing standards for Europe's electrical plugs and sockets, so far without success.

Figure 66
Figure 66 Extracts from British Standard BS 1363:Part 2:1995 (Source: BSI)

Increasingly the acceptance of certain standards, such as for the audio cassette in the 1960s and the compact disc in the 1980s, has helped manufacturers to avoid wasteful duplication. But in the past any agreement on standards has usually come only after a period of intense rivalry between manufacturers striving to have their technology accepted as the standard. Such confrontations have sometimes been so intense that they have been labelled ‘format wars’. A classic example was the struggle between consumer electronics companies Sony and JVC for the video recording standard – Sony promoted the Betamax format and JVC the VHS format. Such battles can be fierce because the economic rewards of having a company's technology established as the international standard are enormous – just as the wasted production, development and marketing costs for the loser might be financially disastrous. Increasingly nowadays, however, much effort is devoted by groups of manufacturers, before expenditure on innovation has gone too far, to agree international standards and save themselves the expense of a format struggle. However innovation history has a habit of repeating itself. In 2003 two major groups of companies were lined up behind different standards for recordable DVDs. Hitachi, Panasonic, and Samsung supported DVD- (DVD minus) while Sony and Philips were behind the DVD+ (DVD plus) format. By the time you read this a common standard may (or may not) have been agreed. You may well be aware of more recent examples of such conflicts.

For more information on British and international standards you could visit the BSI and ISO websites.

Activity 13

What does the standard BS 8888:2004 cover? Do an internet search and find out.