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Introduction to ISO

  By:Prayag Nao

What are standards ?

Standards are documented agreements containing technical specifications or other precise criteria to be used consistently as rules, guidelines, or definitions of characteristics, to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose. 
International Standards thus contribute to making life simpler, and to increasing the reliability and effectiveness of the goods and services we use.

What is ISO ?

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is a worldwide federation of national standards bodies from some 100 countries, one from each country. ISO is a non-governmental organization established in 1947. The mission of ISO is to promote the development of standardization and related activities in the world with a view to facilitating the international exchange of goods and services, and to developing cooperation in the spheres of intellectual, scientific, technological and economic activity.
ISO's work results in international agreements which are published as International Standards.

How it all started

 International standardization began in the electrotechnical field : the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) was created in 1906. Pioneering work in other fields was carried out by the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations (ISA), which was set up in 1926. The emphasis within ISA was laid heavily on mechanical engineering.
ISA's activities ceased in 1942, owing to the Second World War. Following a meeting in London in 1946, delegates from 25 countries decided to create a new international organization "the object of which would be to facilitate the international coordination and unification of industrial standards". The new organization, ISO, began to function officially on 23 February 1947.
The first ISO standard was published in 1951 with the title, " Standard reference temperature for industrial length measurement ".

ISO's name : a user's guide

Many people will have noticed a seeming lack of correspondence between the official title when used in full, International Organization for Standardization, and the short form, ISO. Shouldn't the acronym be " IOS " ? Yes, if it were an acronym - which it is not.
In fact, "ISO" is a word, derived from the Greek isos, meaning "equal ", which is the root of the prefix " iso-" that occurs in a host of terms, such as " isometric " (of equal measure or dimensions - Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) and " isonomy " (equality of laws, or of people before the law - ibid.).
From "equal" to "standard", the line of thinking that led to the choice of "ISO" as the name of the organization is easy to follow.
In addition, the name has the advantage of being valid in each of the organization's three official languages - English, French and Russian. The confusion that would arise through the use of an acronym is thus avoided, e.g. "IOS" would not correspond to the official title of the organization in French - Organisation internationale de normalisation.

International standardization : What does it achieve ?

Industry-wide standardization is a condition existing within a particular industrial sector when the large majority of products or services conform to the same standards. It results from consensus agreements reached between all economic players in that industrial sector - suppliers, users, and often governments. They agree on specifications and criteria to be applied consistently in the choice and classification of materials, the manufacture of products, and the provision of services. The aim is to facilitate trade, exchange and technology transfer through :
  • enhanced product quality and reliability at a reasonable price.
  • improved health, safety and environmental protection, and reduction of waste.
  • greater compatibility and interoperability of goods and services.
  • simplification for improved usability.
  • reduction in the number of models, and thus reduction in costs.
  • increased distribution efficiency, and ease of maintenance.
Users have more confidence in products and services that conform to International Standards. Assurance of conformity can be provided by manufacturers' declarations, or by audits carried out by independent bodies.

Why is international standardization needed ?

The existence of non-harmonized standards for similar technologies in different countries or regions can contribute to so-called "technical barriers to trade". Export-minded industries have long sensed the need to agree on world standards to help rationalize the international trading process. This was the origin of the establishrnent of ISO. International standardization is now well-established for very many technologies in such diverse fields as information processing and communications, textiles, packaging, distribution of goods, energy production and utilization, shipbuilding, banking and financial services. It will continue to grow in importance for all sectors of industrial activity for the foreseeable future.
The main reasons are:

Worldwide progress in trade liberalization

Today's free-market economies increasingly encourage diverse sources of supply and provide opportunities for expanding markets. On the technology side, fair competition needs to be based on identifiable, clearly defined common references that are recognized from one country to the next, and from one region to the other. An industry-wide standard, internationally recognized, developed by consensus arnong trading partners, serves as the language of trade.

Interpenetration of sectors

No industry in today's world can truly claim to be completely independent of components, products, rules of application, etc., that have been developed in other sectors. Bolts are used in aviation and for agricultural machinery; welding plays a role in mechanical and nuclear engineering. and electronic data processing has penetrated all industries. Environmentally friendly products and processes, and recyclable or biodegradable packaging are pervasive concerns.

Worldwide communications systems

The computer industry offers a good example of technology that needs quickly and progressively to be standardized at a global level. ISO's OSI (Open Systems Interconnection) is the best-known series of International Standards in this area. Full compatibility among open systems fosters healthy competition among producers, and offers real options to users since it is a powerful catalyst for innovation, improved productivity and cost-cutting.

Global standards needs for emerging technologies

Standardization programmes in completely new fields are now being developed. Such fields include advanced materials, the environment, life sciences, urbanization and construction. In the very early stages of new technology development, applications can be imagined but functional prototypes do not exist. Here, the need for standardization is in defining terminology and accumulating databases of quantitative information.

Developing countries

Development agencies are increasingly recognizing that a standardization infrastructure is a basic condition for the success of economic policies aimed at achieving sustainable development. Creating such an infrastructure in developing countries is essential for improving productivity, market competitiveness, and export capability.

Who makes up ISO ?

A member body of ISO is the national body "most representative of standardization in its country". It follows that only one such body for each country is accepted for membership. The member bodies have four principal tasks:

  • informing potentially interested parties in their country of relevant international standardization opportunities and initiatives,
  • organizing so that a concerted view of the country's interests is presented during international negotiations leading to standards agreements,
  • ensuring that a secretariat is provided for those ISO technical committees and subcommittees in which the country has an interest,
  • providing their country's share of financial support for the central operations of ISO, through payment of membership dues.
A correspondent member is usually an organization in a country which does not yet have a fully developed national standards activity. Correspondent members do not take an active part in the technical work, but are entitled to be kept fully informed about the work of interest to them. ISO has also established a third category, subscriber membership, for countries with very small economies. These subscribers pay reduced membership fees that nevertheless allow them to maintain contact with international standardization.

What fields are covered ?

The scope of ISO is not limited to any particular branch; it covers all standardization fields except electrical and electronic engineering, which is the responsibility of IEC. The work in the field of information technology is carried out by a joint ISO/IEC technical committee.

How are ISO standards developed ?

An ISO standard is developed by a panel of experts, within a technical committee. Once the need for a standard has been established, these experts meet to discuss and negotiate a draft standard. As soon as a draft has been developed it is shared with ISO’s members who are asked to comment and vote on it. If a consensus is reached the draft becomes an ISO standard, if not it goes back to the technical committee for further edits.


Key principles in standard development

1. ISO standards respond to a need in the market
ISO does not decide when to develop a new standard. Instead, ISO responds to a request from industry or other stakeholders such as consumer groups. Typically, an industry sector or group communicates the need for a standard to its national member who then contacts ISO. Contact details for national members can be found in the list of members.
2. ISO standards are based on global expert opinion
ISO standards are developed by groups of experts from all over the world, that are part of larger groups called technical committees. These experts negotiate all aspects of the standard, including its scope, key definitions and content. Details can be found in the list of technical committees.
3. ISO standards are developed through a multi-stakeholder process
The technical committees are made up of experts from the relevant industry, but also from consumer associations, academia, NGOs and government. Read more about who develops ISO standards.
4. ISO standards are based on a consensus
Developing ISO standards is a consensus-based approach and comments from stakeholders are taken into account.

How is ISO's work financed ?

The financing of ISO closely reflects its decentralized mode of operation with, on the one hand, the financing of the Central Secretariat activities and, on the other hand, the financing of the technical work as such of the technical secretariats. The financing of the Central Secretariat derives from member body subscriptions (70 %) and revenues from the sale of the Organization's standards and other publications (30 %). The subscriptions required of member bodies for financing the operations of the Central Secretariat are expressed in units and calculated in Swiss francs (CHF). The number of units that each member body is invited to pay is calculated on the basis of economic indicators of gross national product (GNP), and value of imports and exports. The value of the subscription unit is set each year by the ISO Council.
The ISO member bodies bear the expenditure necessary for the operation of the individual technical secretariats for which they are responsible. It is generally estimated that the operating expenditure of the Central Secretariat (about 27 million Swiss francs in 1994) represents about one-fifth of the total cost of financing the ISO administrative operations.
To that, one must also add the value of the voluntary contributions of some 30 000 experts in terms of time, travel and organization of meetings. While no precise calculation has ever been made to assess in figures this contribution of fundamental knowledge to the work of ISO, it is nevertheless certain that this expenditure amounts to several hundred million Swiss francs each year.


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