Having standards to work to is normal. In the Aerospace and Automotive Electrical and Electronic design realm there is no shortage of specifications.
Engineers work to a variety of standards. For example – specifications for conductor sizes and wire materials. Also drawing appearance standards which I referred to in a previous post about how potential users of Capital Harness Systems (CHS) vet available systems before adopting – and how this equates to about 25% of their concerns. There are performance standards (heat/moisture/acidity & knock resistance) for harness bundle protections too, and you could call the work-flow controls in place for validation of designs – the rule checks – you can understand these as threshold standards through which designs pass before releases.
I was thinking of this after seeing a reality TV show last week where the tough-talking brutal honesty of the person called in by some business owners was used against the lined up the staff of a hair dressing salon and said to them: “I think we should start working to meet some standards don’t you, because the only standard I see around here at the moment is laziness.” Ouch. But here’s the point, in any team effort, especially one with a technical bias perhaps, if there isn’t a common purpose, a common language and a known set of rules of the game trouble follows. Results are not predictable without standards. The concept of success and failure in your endeavour becomes elastic or worse, competing concepts of whether outcomes are good or ill arise.
Computer software adheres to standards – coding, testing, human-computer-interface standards, interoperability standards like transmission protocols for data (for instance HTTP and FTP). Application software conforms to standards specifications dictated by the market sector, sometimes the industry associations and professional bodies.
A few days after the accidental encounter with a reality TV show I chanced upon an article on the Internet about health-care cost containment in the USA and the role that can be played by standardization of medical records. Electronic storage, standards imposed on health insurers, treatment providers have the potential to eliminate inefficiencies of data capture, re-transmission and translation and re-interpretation. Huge savings might be there to be had for government schemes in the USA, providers and little old me and you the end users. Or money might be released to meet need rather than to feed greed of the machine.
The key point is that standards inject certainty. Everyone is in favor of that. There’s a great desire for standards. ‘ Don’t let your standards drop!’ It sounds rather attractive to have standards.
A few things get in the way of workable standards being adopted by a lot of people and adopted easily.
First let’s imagine you and I sit down and we want to invent a standard for engineers dealing with Electrical Distribution Systems, say for example the load centers or fuse boxes, power distribution boxes and their attendant relays fuses, bits and pieces. After our first cut as a duet, we have a fit of humility and invite Stan, Ray and Raylene because their views will be really good to know – and will enrich our effort. Then Raylene invites Joe, Annie and another round of meetings is necessary. Stan takes it upon himself to research through his professional organization and involves others and pretty soon the ship of good intentions is corroded by the lapping saltwater beat of people helping. Information piles up as the scope of the standard becomes shaky, holds firm, expands and gets unwieldy until finally observers around us sigh with the realization the work we have undertaken is reaching the dock of unusuable as a rusty hulk. By the time it is unusable you and I will probably be so tenaciously evangelical about our standard and will have invested so much time in devising it we will defend the purity the efficacy and the beauty of our useless impractical product. We have documentation everybody admires for cleverness but nobody thinks it will work. We will be bemused at the audacity of those who spurn the chance to use the standard – it runs only to 250 pages (not counting appendices) – what’s the problem with these dolts!
Phew, let’s wake up from that nightmare.
Characteristics of successful standards.
Standards have to be as sparse as possible, yet comprehensive. If you have to decide between one or the other of these aims, if they begin to be mutually exclusive in some way, look at the exactitude and practicality of the standard. The more basic the scope the easier it should be for an engineering organization to adopt.
Engineering standards relating to electrical and electronic design automation data serve the need to interchange data between tools and between organizations. Therefore the standards in this fragmented world of specialisms are often oriented to niches. The niche data a standard describes may be rich and the semantics fascinating (to you, but not to millions the world over) but expand out far enough and there rate of take up for new coverage of the standard gets insignifcant. Official approval, especially in specialized technical niches can help gain acceptance for the standard, but what you are looking for is velocity. Often an industry or a professional body is helpful, but the number of users adopting and finding a standard helpful is often completely unrelated to sponsorship by any governing body. A software vendor championing a standard plugged into their popular software may be much more effective and often is.
Which led me to think about the career of the Design System Interface (.dsi) format – a harness descriptor standard devised as proprietary and with considerable longevity. Longevity which is not surprising given that files of type .dsi are pretty easy to look at and understand if you are a wiring engineer or similar. And if you are not a wiring engineer but you are a software engineer with a smattering of knowledge of wiring harnesses then ditto. Easy to learn. The format description is something you can sit down for twenty minutes and get the hang of quite readily. It is plain – ascii text and simple delimiter choices. It is openly published. In short it has the characteristics of a good standard as described above. It has been adopted quite widely and spread into quite a few sometimes surprising areas.
In my next post I will look in a little more detail at the Design System Interface .dsi Format and speculate it might be on the decline and explain how I come to this suspicion. In the meantime I will leave you with a quote to ponder from my esteemed colleage Mr. John P. Wilson who on November 9th 2007 told a group of Mentor Graphics people: “You’re not home and dry because you adopt a standard and use a standard format.”