The purpose of standards in building a thriving technology community

2Electronics manufacturers are expected to possess a certain level of design competency and level of industry knowledge, serving as a resource to their customers. If you aren't prepared to deliver products using the latest standards within your customers' industries, you're at a large disadvantage.

Have you ever thought about the purpose standards serve? They create a known set of expectations. Whether it’s in the name of workplace safety, public health, or technology innovation, there’s a certain code written into the fabric of developing and adhering to an that enables everyone that it affects to move forward in the same direction and with a common purpose.

What if there was no common language for computers to display a web page? Would we be as far along as we are in the world of the Internet if there were disparate systems that only worked with certain types of code?

A standard doesn’t just happen on its own; it’s driven by customer needs, especially in the technology and computing markets. Before the 1980s, the only entities dictating the development of standards were the military and the government, with the main purpose of . The technology revolution changed the model.

Taking a page from the established military specifications, companies realized that this new level of compatibility among products still involved mechanical requirements – the importance of form, fit, and function remained – but now the products needed to know how to talk to one another and work together.

Open standards enabled not only this communication element to take place, but also paved a whole new pathway to innovation as different companies, and even competitors, began collaborating and sharing knowledge to deliver a robust set of products that worked well together in customers’ systems.

As standards began to be developed, a certain level of competence and an expected degree of cooperation was being demanded of manufacturers, driven by their customer base. Once the standards train started rolling, the benefits to developing a unified roadmap for computing technologies became very evident.

Taking the lead

Think first about Everett M. Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations theory: In short, that early innovators are typically the market leaders. Being involved in the development of a standard gives a company an inside look at what is to come as well as the ability to participate as the technology becomes available. Such companies become influencers, helping to map the strategy that the rest of the industry will follow.

Companies that are involved in a standard’s creation are able to develop products more quickly, saving on research and design costs and the often-costly costly trial and error associated with proprietary designs. While there will always be industries that require custom-tailored solutions, most have adopted a standards-based approach for economic, global, and technological-innovation reasons.

Using a holistic approach, whereby a shared knowledge base is contributed to and accessible by all, the working groups and committees involved with a standard’s development consist of highly skilled, interested individuals, whose collective voice can be heard louder than if they had to blaze a trail in an industry alone.

Some companies may be worried about competition or trade secrets, but the disadvantages of not sharing in this collective community is far worse. A standards committee gives members the opportunity to hash out theories, share views and insights, and make a positive contribution to a system that will be in place for many years to come. The early access to this information better prepares a company to adopt a standard during its product-development cycle and inform the sales team about specific information pertaining to the standard.

Additionally, since committee members drive the discussions on how the standard would be implemented into different industries and the potential challenges associated with those markets, the entire team is in a much better position to engage with customers about how they can successfully use the standard.

Preparing the next generation

The engineering workforce is aging, with a younger, less experienced talent pool coming on board. This trend is as clear as is it inevitable. Standards give those newer to an industry a clear set of guidelines, regulations and design parameters, so they can get up to speed quicker.

A company’s involvement in standards development draws in the innovators as well. Smart engineers realize that if they are to contribute to the development of standards, they need a company that shares the global vision of making the market a better place.

It takes committed time and resources, typically in the form of an engineer’s involvement in the planning, evaluation, and discussions surrounding the creation of a standard. The short-sighted vision some companies have is that this time is best spent working solely on projects for existing customers, rather than preparing for future projects.

The longer-term vision is one of growth. Those involved in the development of standards elevate their knowledge base tenfold – ideas are shared, problems are discussed, and thoughts are built upon in an atmosphere of collaboration. This collective knowledge is then brought back into the company and can be applied towards other projects.

Involvement in creation of standards also gives engineers the freedom to innovate and be a part of something bigger, which can increase job satisfaction as well as productivity. Have you ever met an engineer that didn’t want to solve a problem? Being immersed in such a project offers a chance to make a difference in an area they enjoy, all while they address challenging issues in the process.

Market viability, opportunity, and growth

Participating in a standard’s development enables companies to map products around the strategy laid out by the standard at a much faster pace and with less design effort. By enabling technology reuse through standardized products, manufacturing costs are lessened as well. As more companies are able to produce compatible parts, end users gain buying confidence, since they know there is a competitive market surrounding the technology.

Take VME, for example, which has been in place for several decades, with a large installed base across a vast number of military applications; VME also has a standards committee that is continually moving forward. The results are seen in evolutions such as , enhancing the original VME, ensuring that this technology platform will stay viable for several decades to come. (Figure 1.)

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Figure 1: Being part of the OpenVPX steering and marketing committees has enabled Elma to offer deeper resources, such as these backplane profiles that assist users in the development of OpenVPX-based systems.
(Click graphic to zoom by 1.9x)

From a market perspective, standards grow and strengthen the ecosystem, giving users a stable of products tied to a specific set of principles based on interoperability. This is not only what customers expect, it’s what they demand.

A standard does not operate in a vacuum; it is a living thing. It is the community that surrounds it that truly drives it forward, first by setting the objectives, then by examining it with critical questions, and ultimately by creating products that meet the vision that has been set out. The companies that work together towards a standard’s common goal foster a better community for the end user; in today’s high-visibility world, this will not go unnoticed.

Managing globalization through standardization

Standards also enable a broader market base by allowing companies to deliver products to multiple regions around the world, and in today’s global economy this is a key advantage.

Many customers install systems across their global presence, not only in one facility located in a certain country. The systems themselves need to talk to one another as well. Suppliers may be different across borders, so having a defined set of interoperability and performance expectations allows businesses to buy products on a global scale with confidence.

It also evens the playing field for manufacturers big and small. Standards give companies with more limited resources or product lines the opportunity to provide solutions to a wider range of customers.

Involvement is the key to growth

The question is not why do we need standards, but how can companies best be part of the team that sets the strategy for our industries through standards. Involvement in a standard’s creation offers a collaborative community, where each member can contribute and learn from the experience of the rest of the group.

Modern business also dictates a standards-based approach in terms of the expectation of products on the market. Being a part of the development team gives deeper insights as to the hows and whys of a standard. When applied to product development, this knowledge provides companies with a significant business advantage over those who merely implement a standard.

Steve Gudknecht is product marketing manager at . He has held positions in field applications and marketing in high-technology industries for nearly three decades. Steve’s responsibilities include product development, product marketing, training, and sales support. Readers may reach Steve at steven.gudknecht@elma.com.

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