Standardization refers to the creation and use of guidelines for the production of uniform, interchangeable components, especially for use in mass production. It also refers to the establishment and adoption of guidelines for conduct. In global marketing, the term is used to describe the simplification of procurement and production to achieve economy.

The concept of standardization originated near the turn of the 19th century. Before that time, products were made individually, with unique, hand-fitted parts. Eli Whitney (1765-1825), inventor of the cotton gin, has been credited with developing the concept of standardization, which he first applied to rifle manufacture in 1797. Instead of handcrafting each weapon, he produced components of uniform size in quantity, then assembled the parts into finished products. The concept saved time and money in production, and allowed for easy repair.

By the mid-1800s standardization joined the division of labor and machine-assisted manufacturing as well-established principles of mass production, but they were not widely applied for decades to come. Twentieth century industrialist Henry Ford (1863-1947) was a great proponent and beneficiary of mass production. He organized the Ford Motor Co. around its principles, taking standardization to a high level. His plants manufactured only one type of car at a time. Each auto that came off the production lines was identical, even down to the color—black. Standardization not only saved on production costs, but also benefited consumers, who no longer had to have replacement parts machined by hand.

Ford's success contributed to the proliferation of mass-production principles, including standardization, throughout the developed world. The concept has promoted a dramatic increase in manufacturing productivity, which in turn improved living standards. The concept of standardization has been applied in many ways since.

In general, standardization determines and promulgates criteria to which objects or actions are expected to conform. Standardization for manufacturing may entail the creation of production standards, tolerances, and/or specifications. These can be expressed as formulas, drawings, measurements, or definitions. Standards delineate the limits within which products or components must fall in order to be useful and interchangeable. Components that do not adhere to such limits are "nonstandard" or, more commonly, "rejects." Virtually any aspect of a product or component can be standardized. Quality control and testing are used to measure achievement of standards. The use of such standards promotes clear communication within and among organizations. It can also lower the costs of labor, production, and repair. In the current business climate, businesses have demanded ever-increasing standardization from their suppliers as well as from their own production.

Individual industries may have distinct sets of standards that promote communication among participants and discourage duplication of effort. George Westinghouse (1846-1914), inventor of the air brake and founder of Westinghouse, was an early advocate of the standardization of railway equipment. In the world of scientific inquiry, for example, the metric system is the standard of measurement. In the American construction industry, architects, suppliers, and builders have established standards for prefabricated buildings and construction components.

Organizations and professions may also be held up to standards of practice or conduct, such as safety and ethical standards. For example, government agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission set and enforce safety standards in their respective fields. The Hippocratic oath is a well-known ethical standard that physicians follow.

National and international organizations have also evolved to synthesize the diverse standardization efforts of the individual groups and promote acceptance of and adherence to basic standards. In the United States, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) has taken up this cause. Although this organization does not normally compose standards, it does compile national engineering, safety, and industrial standards. ANSI diverged from its traditional role in 1998 by collaborating with the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society to establish national ergonomic standards for video display terminal workstations. In September 1998 ANSI also established an interactive website containing national and international standards and related information, and outlining U.S. participation in the International Organization of Standardization (ISO). Since its 1946 establishment in Geneva, Switzerland, the ISO has emerged as a powerful advocate of global standards for specifications, testing, approval, and certification. More than 80 nations are counted among its membership. Companies large and small strive for certification by the ISO, which has helped provide a basis of comparison and cooperation among companies around the world, especially as global trade has become increasingly vital to success. The standards set by such organizations often evolve with technological innovation.

The ISO issued its ISO 9000 series of standards and guidelines governing quality management and assurance in 1987, and issued its ISO 14000 series of standards for environmental management, policies, tools, and systems in 1998. Sets of voluntary standards such as these are known as metastandards, and provide universal guidelines and models for entire industries, groups of industries, and other areas of activity. Metastandards are also often used by public agencies forming industrial, professional, environmental, and technical regulations. Many industrial organizations, particularly those representing manufacturers of high technology products, feel that metastandards are irrelevant to their field, given the rapid pace of technical innovation. In 1998, as a response to this sentiment, the Council for Economic Priorities Accreditation Agency (CEPAA) formulated its own set of standards and registrations for use by high-technology industries.

Globalization of business has brought about new definitions and uses of standardization. As companies have begun to compete on a global scale, they have sought out "standardized" suppliers—those that offer the most economical, convenient, and dependable service. Thus, adherence to the standards promulgated by ANSI, ISO, and other national and international standards organizations can assist corporations wishing to do business globally. Ford Motor Co., an early proponent of standardization for mass production, has been praised for its successful use of standardization as it applies to global manufacturing and marketing.

Although standardization tends to lead to inflexibility, it can also allow for customization. When basic elements of a product are standardized, other aspects can be more flexible. For example, autos on an assembly line may use the same standard of wheel attachment, but different size wheels. Micromanagement takes this theory to its ultimate end. This theory attempts to apply standardization to all aspects of an operation, be it manufacturing or service. It seeks to identify the smallest aspects of a function, make them as efficient as possible, and then apply them throughout the operation. Clearly, standardization in all its forms will continue to be applied in new ways in the future.

[ April Dougal Gasbarre ,

updated by Grant Eldridge ]


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