Engineering Standards at the U-M Library

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"Standard Measures" by Neil Cummings via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Standards govern much of what you encounter in your daily life. In his essay “Standards and the Public Interest,” J. Herbert Hollomon offers some examples:

“They provide a basis for exchange of goods and services. They permit mass production. They measure the safety of products. They are the basis for keeping unsafe foods and drugs off the market. They establish product performance in the interest of consumers.” [1]

Hollomon goes on, but you get the idea. Standards touch upon many things, including your home (building codes), your transportation (automotive standards, fuel standards, highway safety standards), your communication (information technology standards), your health (environmental standards, medical device standards), and even your recreation (athletic gear standards, toy safety standards).

ISO, the International Organization for Standardization, talks about standards as they relate to global challenges at their ISO Standards in Action web page.

But what is a standard? A definition that we use on our Standards Research Guide is, “They help clarify, guide and control processes and activities crucial to our everyday functioning and lives. In particular, they specify definitions, performance, and design criteria. They help create a common language with which engineers, researchers, businesses, and even students can communicate, create, and learn.”

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"DIY electrical work" by excelglen
via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Standards can be mandatory, such as those adopted and used in U.S. government regulations, or voluntary, such as ASTM F539-01(2011): Standard Practice for Fitting Athletic Footwear.

Hundreds of organizations in the United States and around the world create, review, and publish standards. Some you may have heard of include ASTM, ISO, NFPA, SAE, and UL.

As a ‘typical’ standardization process [2]:

  1. First, a market need for a new standard or standardization activity has to be identified and recognized among a sufficient number of members of a standards organization;
  2. Subsequently, a set of requirements has to be drafted, underlying the actual technical specification work (usually referred to as ‘commercial’, ‘user’ or ‘functional’ requirements);
  3. Based on consensus reached among the organization’s members on these requirements, a specification is drafted by a group of technical experts;
  4. Once the draft specification is finalized, a formal approval process is conducted; this may be limited to the organization and its members, but may also invite a wider audience, e.g. to broaden the support for, or impact of the future standard;
  5. After its approval, arrangements are made for testing or (self-) certification by the industry, in order to guarantee interoperability between different implementations; this may also encompass developing reference implementations or implementation guidelines;
  6. Finally, a maintenance or periodic review process will be embedded in the organization's procedures to ensure the standard will remain in sync with market requirements.

Standards are important to engineering students as you experiment with new solutions to old problems. Understanding and applying existing standards will help you to create safe, reliable,  and marketable designs. As you enter the engineering workforce, your employers will depend on your knowledge of standards as you tackle new engineering problems.

For a brief overview of engineering standards, you may be interested in: Jawad, Maan and Greulich, Owen (2014), Primer on Engineering Standards, New York: ASME.

The U-M Library offers access to a variety of standards. Please see the Standards Guide for information on access or contact an engineering librarian for help finding a standard.


[1] Glie, Rowen, ed. (1972) Speaking of Standards. Boston: Cahners Books, p.3
[2] Source: retrieved 3/29/2016.