choose to maintain an outdated standard for the benefit of persons who own or acquire a piece of old equipment and need access to technical information in order to operate or maintain it. Alternatively, a standard may remain in existence simply for lack of incentive to unlist it. As many as 25 to 30 percent of U.S. government and private standards have been estimated to be obsolete.11
Finally, two groups of product and process standards are omitted from the data in Figure 2-1. First, information on numbers of state and local government standards is extremely limited and fragmentary. These standards are concentrated in such areas as building and construction materials, workplace safety, environmental protection, agriculture, and foods.12 Second, de facto standards are also excluded from the table. The same difficulties in enumerating public and private formal standards apply in the case of de facto standards set by firms through market competition. In addition, the distinction between a product that sets a standard, influencing the design of others, and a product that is simply one among many is highly subjective. The absence of a formal, institutional process for designating de facto standards compounds the difficulty of identifying, much less quantifying, the output of de facto standards development efforts.
These factors, among others, make it clear that neither a determination of the economic impact of standards activities in the United States nor an overall assessment of the U.S. system should focus closely on the quantities of standards produced. Valid assessments depend, instead, on examination of the efficiency and effectiveness of standards development in relation to the needs of industry, government, and society; the economic and technological implications of the U.S. system's characteristics; and the efficacy of existing mechanisms for strengthening and improving the system.
Efforts to coordinate standards development in the United States began to develop momentum early in this century. One factor spurring these efforts was the realization that technical standards were needed to ensure the safety of many new products of the industrial age. The first version of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Boiler Code was written in 1914, in response to serious hazards posed by poor-quality boilers, which were prone to explode. The code—today, the Boiler and Pressure Vessel Code—performs several of the functions of standards outlined in the previous chapter. Most significant is its role in protecting safety by providing a standard against which unsafe boilers, components, and manufacturing methods can be identified and rejected. Large portions of the code have become mandatory through reference in government regulation in the United States and many other countries.13 The code also acts as a guide for manufacturers in the techniques of producing and maintaining safe boilers, pressure vessels, and nuclear reactors. In this way, the code fosters the diffusion of best practices throughout the industry.14