The need for many standards is directly linked to marketplace realities. As discussed in an article published in the May/June 2021 issue of Standards Engineering SES publication, there is often an optimum time during which standards can help an industry. One particular case discussed in that article is what I termed “Normal Market Growth” case.

New products often fill unmet customer needs, resulting in strong initial growth. During the early stages, the key to success is differentiation through product performance or service. Standards at this stage are clearly not welcomed; in most cases, they would stifle innovation and slow the response to customer needs.

As time passes, competitors enter the market, addressing the same needs differently. That can create confusion or uncertainty about performance claims. At some point, such confusion or uncertainty threatens the overall market growth. That's when standards are called for help. They can address performance definitions (so customers can compare apples with apples) or interoperability (assuring that product A could be replaced with product B with no major disruption or expenditure).

As industries approach the need to standardize, several options exist to make that process manageable. SES has looked at many such processes and developed SES 2: Procedure for the Development of Standards, which is designed to guide standards professionals as well as newcomers through options at each stage of the process.

The following case study from the flashlight industry is a good example of challenges that were successfully addressed by adopting a flexible standardization process.

Early in 2007, a couple of National Electrical Manufacturers of America members from the battery products section approached NEMA technical management with an interesting proposition about a product they made: flashlights. The situation they described was essentially that of a well-established industry starting to be seriously upended by new technologies and market developments that were transforming it into the Wild West!

One challenge was that LEDs were starting to make some serious inroads as very low-energy and long-lasting alternatives to the familiar incandescent bulb. The immediate consequence for flashlights was the substantive lengthening of the battery life.

Another development in the light source area was very high intensity discharge lamps that could project light substantially farther than light bulbs.

The Wild West manifested itself with commercial claims along the lines of “This flashlight can stay ON forever!” and “This flashlight can put a spot of light on the moon!” There was obviously no way to verify either claim.

Other performance characteristics, such as improved beam profile, light quantity or brightness, waterproof resistance, and drop resistance, were also advertised, but without any indication of how they were tested. Some “big box” stores started to look into ways to test products in their labs without the necessary expertise on hand for such a task. Additionally, the market started to be inundated with cheap imports that didn't make any performance claims but were sold at very low prices.

These were the reasons our members asked NEMA to come to the rescue. They knew that NEMA is a standards developing organization (and an ANSI-accredited SDO at that). They thought that a document standardizing the evaluation of flashlight-specific performance characteristics would restore some normalcy in the industry.

NEMA was indeed a good place to ask for such support. NEMA has at least two product groups involved in a flashlight: one for batteries, another for light sources. Another product group is involved with enclosures, and that could obviously be of help.

However, there were some complications. For starters, each NEMA product group traditionally writes their own product standards. There was no organizational precedent for a product involving two distinct product sections. Once NEMA management agreed to support the project, a solution to this problem was found by creating an ad hoc technical committee, the Flashlight Standardization Committee (FSC), dedicated to creating the standard sought by the flashlight industry.

The next step was to determine the nature of the document needed. Since the challenge the industry faced was to convince the market that most products will meet their advertised performance claims, members opted to develop an American National Standard (ANS). By the nature of its process, an ANS tends to achieve faster acceptability in the marketplace. The basic principles guiding the development of an ANS—primarily balance, openness, lack of dominance, and consideration of views and objections—are solid building blocks for gaining credibility in the marketplace. NEMA could have written the standard by itself, but since the target audience was the user community, inviting other key stakeholders into the drafting process was a key consideration.

Once the scope of the project was defined, the next step was to find flashlight manufacturers (other than the few original NEMA members) that were willing to spend time, and some money, developing the standard.

One complication NEMA faced was the fact that, by nature, its members belong to only one of the key stakeholder categories demanded in an ANSI standard development process: manufacturers, or “producers.” To allow the manufacturers to secure an industry consensus and be able to defend it with other stakeholders less invested in the technology, NEMA proposed an alternative path. Producers would work within the NEMA ad hoc group to develop a standard draft and separately set up a consensus group to evaluate and approve it as the ANS they were interested in creating.

For a group of quite diverse product manufacturers that had never worked together, this process gave the industry a chance to establish its own set of positions that, later in the process, it could defend with solid arguments.

Having a good scope, a basic organization structure, and a plan was essential to the next stage of the process: recruitment. In addition to the fairly clear industry benefits, the pitch to manufacturers included two not-so-obvious ones.

One was the learning element. People not involved in standardization work often underestimate the huge learning opportunity it offers. You're sitting at the table with some of the best professionals in your field, debating the merits of each relevant product characteristic. The experience is priceless!

The other benefit is avoiding the potential for harm from not being at the table when standards requirements are being developed. Inadvertently, consensus requirements may negate an advantage of your product, or a requirement proposed by competitors may force you to redesign your product or impose new (and perhaps expensive) testing requirements on your company. Being there is the best offense and defense!

Using available industry reference lists and active help from the initial NEMA members, project staff recruited 15 flashlights manufacturers. Interestingly, the market leader declined to join the project. That's actually somewhat expected in these types of situations. Market leaders get to be leaders by pushing the envelope hard; to them, consensus looks like slowing down to the lowest common denominator, which is anathema to their marketing experts.

As the manufacturers gathered for their first meeting, they realized that the industry had branched out into several different application segments with very different needs, including general use, spotlights, headlamps, underwater flashlights, tactical (used with weapons), safety, industrial, sporting goods, (cycling, mountain climbing, etc.) and others. They needed some organization to bring order to the project.

At the first face-to-face meeting, FSC members refined the product scope, established the project flowchart, agreed on the structure of the standard, and clarified the financial aspects of the activity. They also agreed to a set of operating procedures, examples of which can be found in the SES 2 document.

Another agreement that turned out to be helpful was an initial agreement on the document format. The SES 1 Recommended Practice for the Designation and Organization of Standards document offers such a template.

The momentum had begun to build. There was no stopping it now!

Members agreed to meet at first face-to-face to get to know each other and establish the level of trust necessary to such endeavor. They agreed to set the meetings pace such as to complete the project within two years.

In addition to the main operating procedures, several other procedural matters were agreed upon. One was the requirement for a quorum. To ensure meetings run smoothly and progress is consistently made, FSC members approved a quorum requirement based on attendance at the current meeting and the previous two meetings. Members not attending two consecutive meetings were not counted in the quorum determination. Attending a meeting restored their voting status.

Committee members also agreed to use semi-formal agreements on each standard requirement they drafted to avoid re-visiting the same item during the development of the standard unless initial premises had changed. This turned out to be harder to enforce than expected but would have been catastrophic if not in place! Dated versions of the draft and good meeting minutes were helpful in that endeavor.

As mentioned, there was quite a range of diversity in the products’ designs. Reaching consensus between manufacturers of the flashlights sold at supermarkets and manufacturers that make military grade products took time, process discipline, diplomacy, and a lot of patience!

The final ballot consisted of a number of separate ballots, one for each requirement. This offered the group the flexibility to address divergences of positions only on items identified as having them.

About halfway through the second program year, members felt there was enough light at the end of the standards tunnel to start organizing the consensus group that would review and approve the group's standard draft. NEMA staff notified ANSI through their Project Initiation Notification System (PINS) that a project on the flashlight topic was afoot.

FSC members provided NEMA staff with names of organizations that might be interested in participating in the ANSI consensus group. They also suggested specific benefits that could entice the other stakeholder categories to commit to participate.

Members agreed to limit the number of stakeholders to the minimum three categories often used in the development of an ANS: producers, users, and general interest. Major “big box” stores such as REI, Cabela's, and Dick's Sporting Goods were included in the User category. Testing laboratories were also targeted for participation and included in the General Interest category, as they possessed the desired level of interest and expertise and would likely be the first to put the new standard to use, once finalized.

The invitation to participate was also extended to other producers that didn't participate in the FSC group. That included, by the way, the market leader, which declined again to get involved.

The standard delivered what the project had been created to accomplish:

  • Definitions of the relevant flashlight performance characteristics, such as beam distance, run time, pick beam intensity, impact resistance, and enclosure protection against water penetration ratings

  • Testing methods for these performances

  • Consensus on markings, which was probably one of the most consequential outcomes of the project. Members designed icons to be printed on product packages and literature to educate consumers about product performance, see examples in Figure 1.

Figure 1.

Examples of flashlight icons: Beam distance, Impact and Run time.

Figure 1.

Examples of flashlight icons: Beam distance, Impact and Run time.

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Good signs that the standard served a useful purpose started to show up not many months after its publication. Manufacturers were at the ready with product certification and markings. Some big box retailers had panels with the icons posted in the flashlight section to help consumers with product selection based on verifiable information. Some went even further and required their flashlight vendors to begin using these icons. (One of the first pieces of proof the standard was timely and needed was the fact that the market leader was one of the first to display the icons!)

Andrei Moldoveanu is a technical fellow in building infrastructure with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA). He is the past SES technical director (Standards and Certification Committees) and a past SES board member.

Andrei Moldoveanu is a technical fellow in building infrastructure with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA). He is the past SES technical director (Standards and Certification Committees) and a past SES board member.

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