What’s a Standard?
There are lots of things called “standards” but they’re not at all alike. There are official standards sanctioned by an accredited standards body and then there are de facto “standards” (such as Microsoft Windows) and ad hoc “standards” (widely used methods or procedures adopted by mutual agreement). This discussion will look only at official standards. Official standards cover two basic areas: technology and use (or applications).
- Technology Standards
- Application Standards
- Standards Development
Technology standards can be thought of as “specifications” because they deal with the nuts-and-bolts of how things work.
In RFID, technical specifications cover issues such as frequency, data transfer and communications protocols. They do not cover how the technology is used, only how it works.
Nomenclature is a bit dicey here since “technical specification” has different meanings in different areas of the world. For example, a Technical Specification in CEN is a lower grade, less permanent deliverable likely to be revised. Note the caveat on most products that the manufacturer can change the specification at any time. A standard is intended to be stable and products shall conform to the requirements.
Data structuring (protocols and/or syntax) standards are considered generic and, while they may be independent of a specific technology, are considered subsets of technical standards. An example of this type of standard is Data Identifiers (DIs) that can be employed in virtually any AIDC technology.
EAN.UPC’s Global Trade Identification Number (GTIN) is another example of a high-level application standard that is completely independent of a technical specification because it can be applied regardless of whether bar code, RFID or even human-readable characters are used to represent it.
Application standards, on the other hand, cover how a technology is used and not how it works.
Application standards cover data content, structure and syntax. They typically point to a technical specification to and may define a subset of it to limit how a specific technology will be used to carry or represent the data. Additional guidance, such as placement, durability and so forth is also generally included.
Who Does What?
The early development work on technical standards is typically done by committees or working groups within national or regional standards organizations. Technical standards can also be developed by broadly-based organizations such as AIM, CEN and EAN.UCC. These documents, if there is a market demand for them, can be submitted to the appropriate international body for consideration as an international standard work item.
Individual companies or organizations may also develop draft documents for consideration by national and international standards bodies. For example, standards being developed by Sun Mircrosystems would be ad hoc standards with no formal status unless they are accepted by ANSI or ISO.
Application standards are often developed by user organization such as automotive, electronics or consumer goods trade associations. These may or may not be submitted for national or international standardization. Many major industry groups, such as the Electronics Industries Association (EIA) in the U.S. and the European steel industry are also accredited standards developers within their respective regions. Standards developed by these organizations often reach national or regional status. In cases where there is an international standards committee working on behalf of an industry these documents can be submitted to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for international approval.
Major standards organizations are national, regional or international.
National standards apply only to the country in which they are adopted (although they may be adopted or referenced by any organization or even country). National standards bodies may be government-sponsored, as they are in many parts of the world, or independent.
In the U.S., for example, there are two major standards-setting organizations: the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), formerly the Bureau of Weights and Measures. ANSI is a voluntary organization. NIST is a non-regulatory government agency. Standards issued by ANSI (www.ansi.org) and NIST (www.nist.gov) are voluntary standards. There is no force of law mandating their adoption by anyone and no penalties for not adopting them (other than customer pressure).
International standards are generally applicable everywhere. Local regulations in some areas, however, may supersede international standards.
AIDC is covered by two major standards bodies: the International Organization for Standards (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). ISO and IEC have established a Joint Technical Committee (JTC-1) to address technology standards, including those for AIDC. Standards that are developed by JTC-1 are subsequently published as joint ISO/IEC standards.
Within JTC-1, Subcommittee 31, Work Group 4 (JTC-1 SC31/WG4) deals with RFID. There are a variety of other ISO committees that address RFID such as Technical Committee 104 (TC104) which has issued a standard for RFID on maritime containers and the Joint Working Group of ISO TC122 and TC104 that is working on a set of generic application standards. There are many other committees and working groups involved with RFID. These are just two examples.
ISO standards are also voluntary although, as with all voluntary standards, marketplace pressure usually mandates compliance.
Creating Order from Chaos
There are two basic methods of developing standards.
The majority of standards today are developed using the consensus process. In this method, any party that may be significantly or materially affected by the standard under development may comment.
At a national level, this means that ANSI committee meetings are open to all interested parties. In some instances, because of logistical issues, meetings may not be convenient for all interested parties but document drafts are made available and comments must be reviewed periodically.
For ISO, IEC and JTC-1 committees, only representatives of national standards bodies (or their designees) may participate. However, comments are solicited on the national level prior to any international meeting.
Within a typical development cycle there will be several official public reviews prior to a final public comment period.
It’s important to note that unanimity is not required for the approval of a standard. All comments on, and objections to, the document must be addressed but objections do not necessarily have to be resolved. An honest effort to resolve the issue must be made but it is often not possible to remove the objection. Thus, a consensus (or majority) view to adopt or reject a standard prevails. Typically, there will be a set point for action, for example, greater than 50 percent of those voting.
The other method, used by CEN for some of its standards development, is for a group of experts on writing standards to be tasked with developing a document. This group may not be expert on the topic and will rely on outside experts to advise it. Such a process is typically closed to outside comment until an official review is conducted.
As is evident by the above synopsis, understanding the players and processes for developing standards is not easy. Unless you intend to become directly involved in standards development, the important points to remember are these:
- not everything called a standard is a standard,
- technology standards define how a technology functions, and
- application standards address how technology is used.
If you do want to get directly involved in the standards development process, you should start by contacting the trade association for your industry to see if they have an official representative on the appropriate standard committee. This will help you get up to speed on current activities.
You can also contact AIM or your local EAN.UCC office for more information. A key service that AIM is developing is providing our global members with comprehensive information about the AIDC Standards “landscape.” Chapters and their members will get a summary version of this information