Andy Fish, technical specialist for 3M’s Transportation Safety Division, looks at how to encourage innovation in a regulated market.
As someone who has sat on many standard setting committees and industry bodies, across several industries, I have often pondered why things are the way they are.
Standards play an important role in many industries; and in a market that is primarily focused on safety, they are critical. As such, standards set out to do many things, including providing a common description of product types, set minimum levels of performance, describe classes of useful performance, identify testing methods, and provide tools for the certification of products.
All the above are intended to ensure that the supplied product is suitable for purpose and enable the purchaser to make an informed decision based on a true comparison.
However, like all things, there are negative aspects to standards. While some of these are easily solved, others are not so straightforward.
Arguably the most challenging aspect is time. Standards take a long time to come to fruition, they are often many years in the making – and even small amendments can take an extraordinary length of time to be published. Meanwhile, many product manufacturers are improving their designs and finding new ways to improve performance with technology that did not exist when the underlying standard was first drafted. This lag ultimately means that the end user does not benefit for years, sometimes decades.
Sometimes standards are worded in such a way that they actively exclude new innovations by calling out a specific technology rather than a performance characteristic. As an example, the current standard for permanent traffic signs contains tables for the performance of retroreflective sheeting, one of which specifically refers to materials constructed with glass beaded reflectors. Specifying a technology in this way prevents new technologies being used. After all it should not matter how the material is constructed the end user probably does not care if it is made with glass beads or fairy dust. What matters is how it performs. Does it do the job it is supposed to do?
These things happen because people tend to think about what they know, the current state-of-the-art solution. To paraphrase Henry Ford, if you asked people what they wanted 100 or so years ago they would not have said “a car” they would have said “a faster horse that eats less hay” as this is what they knew at the time. The underlying need was to get from A to B, cheaply and quickly.
When authoring standards, we need to be focused on the purpose of the product and, most importantly, what that means to the end user, NOT what is currently possible with today’s technology, and NOT what the majority of manufacturers can make.
Of course, there are ways to accelerate the implementation of new technologies by conducting trials and creating test beds, for example, but this requires more cooperation from all parties.
Manufacturers need to clearly identify the benefits of their nascent technology and purchasers need to be clear on their needs alongside being more open to try something different that might just be more effective.
While we cannot predict the future, we can do much more to ensure that the consumer gets the best possible product by focusing on what the customer needs, not the industry’s current capability.