Understanding importance of standardization

by Chiho Iuchi

Staff Writer

The increasing globalization of the world economy and the development of frontier technologies are adding further weight to international standardization.

Founded in 1906, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) has published consensus-based international standards and has managed conformity assessment systems, on which millions of devices, which contain electronics and use or produce electricity, rely on to perform, fit and work safely together.

Headquartered in Geneva, the IEC provides a platform for companies, industries and governments to discuss and develop the international standards they require. Its annual general meeting rotates among member countries and is a place for stakeholders to come together to hold discussions on current issues and decide on the future directions and strategies for the IEC.

This year, for the first time in 15 years, Japan is hosting the IEC General Meeting, which coincides with the accession of Japan’s Junji Nomura as the IEC President for a three-year term, starting on Jan. 1.

“Also, it is an opportunity to showcase the recovery of the Japan that experienced the disasters on March 11, 2011, to an international audience,” said Tamotsu Nomakuchi, president of the Japanese Industrial Standards Committee (JISC), the Japanese National Committee of the IEC.

The general meeting in Tokyo is held under the theme of “Integration toward a Smarter World,” an unusual step in that the meetings are usually not held with a specific target.

Although standardization has traditionally served as the mark of quality and market acceptance for technology-based products, the multiplicity of technologies and their convergence are increasing the propensity that products and systems need to work together to construct large-scale solutions, as seen in smart grids. The IEC Masterplan 2011 emphasizes the increasing requirement of system standards for large-scale solutions or infrastructure, especially in sectors such as the environment, safety and health.

“With the increasing importance of such a system approach, we set the theme to demonstrate Japan’s commitment and contribution as one of the leading countries using smart grid technology,” Nomakuchi said.

A smart grid is a modernized electrical grid that uses information and communications technology (ICT) to gather and act on information, such as information about the behaviors of suppliers and consumers, to automatically improve the efficiency, reliability, economics and sustainability of the production and distribution of electricity.

In the aftermath of the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami that struck on March 11, 2011, and the subsequent nuclear power plant disaster, which resulted in the increased demand for resilience and sustainability, Japan is forging ahead with a variety of operational experiments to establish smart cities in which infrastructure such as energy and transportation are effectively organized by utilizing ICT.

Besides official meetings of the IEC’s technical committees related to smart-grid technologies, the Tokyo event provides participants from overseas with opportunities to visit large-scale, advanced experimental sites of companies and local governments during its “Technical Visits” programs.

“With the special events during the meeting, I am confident that the general meeting in Tokyo should be as fulfilling as any other IEC general meetings I have attended since becoming the president of JISC six years ago,” Nomakuchi said proudly.

Also, a symposium titled “What’s going on in international standardization of Smart Cities/Community?” will be open to the participants as well as the general public.

“In the progression phase of creating a framework for smart cities, I believe that it should reflect the opinions of ordinary citizens who may live in such new cities, rather than just offering products or systems from the maker side,” Nomakuchi said.

“And even though we cannot introduce the achievements of our experiments to China or Southeast Asian countries exactly the same way as we did, they will be able to refer to and apply the internationally standardized framework of the smart cities/communities, which we shall establish through our discussion,” Nomakuchi said.

Nomakuchi, who has long worked for Mitsubishi Electric Corp., first recognized the importance of the international standardization while he served as the head of the company’s Information Technology R&D Center in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture.

“Staff members in charge of the communications field were working in research and development while being mindful of international standards so their newly-developed protocols and devices could be put to practical use,” Nomakuchi recounted, adding, “Communications systems have no meaning if they cannot be connected.”

The main emphasis of the standardization at the IEC, as well as the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), has been recognized as mutual adjustment among established technology.

“Looking from the perspective of research and development, however, the new achievements can be shared rapidly worldwide thanks to the framework of the international standards, thus I recognized the importance of the standardization,” Nomakuchi said.

“A decisive event was the enforcement of the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT agreement) administered by the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995,” Nomakuchi said of the international treaty, which aims to ensure that technical regulations, standards, testing and certification procedures do not create unnecessary obstacles to trade.

“Beyond the tug of wars surrounding de facto standards, as seen in the computer business and home video specs, in which ‘the winner takes all,’ the TBT agreement has led stakeholders around the world to respect de jure standards, which are established through open discussion at official international organizations,” Nomakuchi said.

“Of course, it is up to the strategy of each company how to use the standards. There is always room for companies to pursue their originality and ingenuity, which may be better left not standardized, but there are also achievements that would be better open and widely shared through standardization for further development of industry,” Nomakuchi explained.

Looking back on the origin of the IEC in the early 20th century, where electrical engineers began to see the need for closer collaboration embracing terminology, testing, safety and internationally agreed specifications, the international standards have become increasingly important in the latter part of the 20th century, where new technologies are emerging one after another. Amid such a rapid progress of technology, new standards may take the place of the existing ones.

“Japanese people have had a tendency of following the standards made by others, but I think we need to step ahead to take the initiative in making new standards,” Nomakuchi said. “Of course with a spirit of cooperation.”

It is also very important to establish a system to certify whether cutting-edge technologies are in accordance with related standards.

“We need to further enhance the conformity certification system in Japan and to show our efforts to developing countries so that they will be able to refer to our expertise. I believe that it should be a major role for Japan as one of the last that joined the advanced nations,” Nomakuchi said.

“Serving as a ‘passport’ to global business for industry, and as a rule to promise a secure and safe society for the general public, international standards serve as a universal infrastructure for a fair and sustainable industrial society,” Nomakuchi said. “Our goal at the IEC General Meeting in Tokyo is to present Japan’s sincere contribution to constructing such an infrastructure.”

Download the PDF of this IEC General Meeting in Tokyo

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