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Let's Applaud Some Unsung Heroes

May 12, 2004

Even though engineers may not stop to think about the importance of standards, industry dramatically benefits from the cooperative efforts of those who volunteer to develop these important guidelines. For instance, the story, "Safety Pros Put 'SIS' in Systems," highlights how new safety standards are influencing the design and use of process controllers and field instruments, which should lead to safer plants. Similar stories can be told about digital communications, software, materials of construction and many other aspects of technology in modern life.

Such cooperative efforts may impact millions of people (for example, as the IEEE 802 standards for wireless digital communications undoubtedly will) or may affect a narrow area, such as a testing procedure for fired heaters. Regardless, developing such documents requires a lot of hard work, the brunt of which is done by engineers.

The effort is time-consuming and often exhausting. Committees meet first to determine what needs coverage. Then, designated committee members must research the topic, gather comments from interested parties and begin framing the document. Next, rounds of meetings and conference calls are arranged to build the necessary consensus. Drafts then undergo review by other committees or industry experts, and those parties suggest revisions or create mandates. Finally, after a series of such iterations, some of which take years, the document may receive official approval.

Consider, for example, the work of the Equipment Testing Procedures Committee of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) in New York. This committee has been laboring since the 1940s to produce practical guidelines for evaluating and testing process equipment. Each procedure serves as a recommended practice rather than an enforceable standard. The latest publications cover centrifugal pumps for handling Newtonian fluids, impeller-type mixing equipment and fired heaters.

The logic of developing such documents is unimpeachable. But, with such procedures taking so long to draft, the question arises: "Why would anyone volunteer for such work?"

In many cases, committee members may have a vested interest in wanting to provide their employers' perspectives. But, by their nature, most cooperative efforts focus on generic performance, selection or similar issues, so the results rarely cite a specific vendor. For the individual, committee work rarely leads to financial compensation or greatly enhanced professional stature. So, it's easy for any engineer to decline this work. Yet, someone has to stand up and say, "I'll do it!"

Tom Yohe, past chairman of AIChE's Equipment Testing Procedures Committee, has a simple answer: "You do it because you want to give something back to the profession." Mr. Yohe, an engineer for Swenson Process Equipment, has been involved with the committee for nearly a decade, as have many other committee members. He says that in some cases, committee members continue to participate even after they have retired. Most do not receive any support from their former employers and pay the cost of attending meetings out of their own pockets.

That level of commitment speaks to a sense of dedication and community that isn't encountered often enough in our professional lives. But, it is duplicated at the many standards-setting activities that go on at IEEE, ISA, ASME, API, ASTM and other groups. These standards come together with some official governmental weight at the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and, in turn, ANSI is often the official U.S. representative for organizations like the International Electrotechnical Commission or the International Standards Organization, which seeks to provide worldwide standards.

It's fascinating to realize that some of these efforts go back to the origins of engineering professions themselves. For instance, the same ASTM standard has been worked on for more than a century by some of their committees. According to a history of ASTM International (posted on its Web site), Committee A-1, the ASTM steel standards group, has been running since 1898.

In our professional work, we deal with standards all the time. But we rarely, if ever, stop to think about all the effort that goes into these standards by dedicated, altruistic engineers. Here's one "thank you," and some applause for work well done.

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