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Determining relevance in standards and testing

Features | September 4, 2015 | By:

The strenuous nature and danger associated with firefighting requires apparel and gear that’s proven to meet strict standards. Photo: Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency
The strenuous nature and danger associated with firefighting requires apparel and gear that’s proven to meet strict standards. Photo: Canadian Forces Personnel Support Agency

Standard test methods are used to characterize goods and services so that communication between buyers and sellers is facilitated across the global marketplace.

Manufacturers may be motivated to test their products according to published standards to communicate their quality or function, to enable specific advertising claims to be made, to mitigate risk against potential future adverse health or environmental claims, to be good stewards of natural resources, or to conform to government regulations.

Determining which standards to use or which ones must be met to achieve these various purposes can be a challenging exercise. How does a textile or end-product manufacturer determine which standards are relevant for a given product in a given market? A conceptual outline for addressing this question is a useful place to start.

Mandatory or voluntary?

Standards are developed by a variety of organizations with acronyms such as AAMA, ASTM, NFPA, SAE, TAPPI, UL and WCMA; navigating this “alphabet soup” of standards and test methods can be frustrating.

When developing a new product for a new market, the first step should be to determine which standards are mandatory. Mandatory standards are ones adopted by governments, in which case they are regulations. Governments may provide help in the form of guidance documents for certain products and industries as to which standards are mandatory. Examples for textiles include fiber identification and flammability, which are described in the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

Most standards, however, are voluntary. The decision as to which ones the product should be tested against depends on the goals and intent of the manufacturer. Knowledgeable buyers can dictate the standards to which sellers must test their products. If the goal is to compare against a buyer’s specification or existing products in the marketplace, then identifying the relevant standards may be as straightforward as speaking to the buyer or examining the technical data sheets offered with existing products. Many industries are self-policing, and manufacturing customers are sufficiently knowledgeable about the accepted standards so they can communicate this information to sellers.

Backing a claim

The relevant standards often depend on what a manufacturer or brand owner wants to claim about a product in their advertising. Claims help sell a product by differentiating it from its competition. However, claims carry risk and, therefore, should be supported by relevant and scientifically reliable testing.

Concepts such as reproducibility are considered when determining whether a test method is scientifically reliable or not. This and other concepts are considered when developing standard tests, which are not adopted as standard tests until they meet established guidelines for scientific reliability. Thus, the standard tests should be considered first when searching for a test to support a specific advertising claim.

If a standard cannot be identified that captures the differentiating property or feature of a product, then a modified standard test can be considered. If modified standard tests still do not capture the unique qualities of the product, then a custom test can be designed and conducted. If customized testing is deemed the best route to elucidating the most relevant feature of a new product, then care should be taken to develop the test in a scientifically robust manner.

From nonstandard to standard

Technology and the new products it enables advance faster than standard tests can be developed for evaluating new product performance, quality control and identification. This means that modified standard tests and customized tests are needed more often than not for companies that engage in new product development.

Development of standard tests can take a year or more to complete. The process is rigorous and the standards are developed by committees of professionals that must reach a consensus before a given standard is accepted and published as a standard. One advantage of customized tests is that they can be developed much faster—sometimes weeks or months.

Often testing takes place simultaneously with product development anyway, and such testing will be customized as needed. This is a natural consequence of pushing technology and developing new products in which standard tests do not capture the properties or characteristics of interest. The testing and test method development informs and guides product development, and ultimately leads to the customized tests that can be used to differentiate the new product.

If a company does not have the experience or facilities for testing, companies like Exponent can help with this. In fact, even when companies conduct their own test method development and testing, they may want to use an independent third party for testing when it comes time for using the results in marketing and advertising.

Companies should not shy away from nonstandard testing, but should approach test development with the same rigor and intensity as that devoted to product development. Such test-development exercises are often the beginnings of what will become the next industry-consensus standards.

Haskell Beckham is senior managing scientist with Exponent. He will be speaking on “Customized Testing of Advanced Textiles to Support Product Development and Claims” at IFAI’s Advanced Textiles Conference Oct. 6 in Anaheim, Calif.

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