At the end of the 19th century, as American commerce was increasingly dependent on the rail network tying the country together, there was a prolonged spate of accidents that threatened to disrupt the Second Industrial Revolution. In response, engineers and scientists working for the Pennsylvania Railroad formed the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) in 1898. The ASTM worked to develop a standard used to fabricate the rails that formed the literal backbone of the rapidly expanding rail industry. Changing its name (adding “and”) in 1902 to become the American Society for Testing and Materials as the organization moved beyond an exclusive focus on railroad components. In 1961, the acronym became the name and it became ATSM International. Throughout the over 120 years of its existence, the organization has developed and published over 12,000 voluntary consensus technical standards that cover a broad range of materials, products, services and systems.
The ATSM defines their standards as “a document that has been developed and established within the consensus process of the Society and that meets the approval requirements of ASTM procedures and regulations.” Those standards are categorized into six different types which are defined in their Regulations:
- Test Method – A definitive procedure that produces test result.
- Specification – An explicit set of requirements to be satisfied by a material, product, system or service.
- Classifications – A systematic arrangement or division of materials, products, systems, or services into groups based on similar characteristics such as origin, composition, properties, or use.
- Practice – A definitive set of instructions for performing one or more specific operation that does not include a test result.
- Guide – A compendium of information or series of options that does not recommend a specific course of action.
- Terminology – A document comprising definitions of terms; explanations of symbols, abbreviations, or acronyms.
The vast majority of standards relate to iron and steel materials, a legacy of its railroad origins. Standards for various types of galvanizations, metal coatings, welded metal tubes, pressure vessel plates exist alongside those for polymer precoated sheet steel, epoxy-coated steel wire, and borated steel for use in nuclear applications.
Going beyond ferric metals, there are standards relating to nonferrous metal materials, ceramics, energy, polycarbonates, x-ray testing, textiles, medical devices, environmental technology, sports equipment and more. Of course, covering this breadth of materials requires the work of many people and there are 143 different technical writing committees who contribute to the annual publication of standards which is made up of several volumes.
ASTM Membership and Mission
Membership in ASTM is open to anyone who is interested, and includes industry users, consumers, manufacturers and academics among others. Members may volunteer to serve on most of the over 140 committees. New committees are formed as needed to keep up with industrial developments. Once a standard is proposed by a committee, the draft is then reviewed by its parent subcommittee before being accepted. Out of ASTM’s more than 30,000 volunteer members, over 1,100 members from 140 countries serve on the organizational level.
Beyond creating standards, the organization also provides continuing education and technical training programs for industry and governments alike. It also provides independent, government and industrial laboratories a way to assess their own performance.
ASTM does not test products itself, but there are independent laboratories around the country and the world which perform tests using ASTM’s standards to verify that the product does, in fact, conform.
Setting the Standards
Taken together, compliance with ASTM’s standards indicate that the manufacturer or service provider has worked to create a reliable product. This not only applies to consumers, but to other manufacturers who may include a part as a component of their own product. It provides a common frame of reference that all parties can adhere to.
ASTM, as an organization, has no power to enforce compliance with its standards. However, many industries adopt these standards as mandatory, calling out specific standards in contracts, for example. Likewise, companies may similarly adopt the standards as a way to clearly define requirements in international business. The National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act, which was enacted in 1995, requires the US federal government to use privately developed consensus standards to the extent possible, thus codifying many of the standards. An example of this is 2008’s Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). The CPSIA makes compliance with ASTM F963 a mandatory requirement as part of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) review of toys to ensure safety. The Government Services Administration (GSA), which manages and supports the basic functioning of federal agencies utilizes ASTM standards, frequently referencing them in contracts for goods and services provided to the government.
Other nations as well as American state and local governments have similarly adopted ASTM standards. The World Trade Organization (WTO), the global body that works to ensure the smooth flow of international trade looks to ASTM as a partner in overcoming technical barriers to trade. As the ASTM says on their website, “ASTM International is a leading developer of standards that comply with the WTO Technical Barriers to Trade Agreement principles.”
Changing and Updating ASTM Standards
The standards created by ASTM serve as guidance to manufacturers, assurance to customers and efficiency in commerce. As technology and science improves, standards can be updated where needed. For example, ASTM A380 “Standard Practice for Cleaning, Descaling, and Passivation of Stainless Steel Parts, Equipment, and Systems” was first established in 1978. As its name suggests, it laid out the standards for cleaning stainless steel as well as providing specific guidance for how to ensure that welds and weld-joint areas do not become areas of corrosion.
In addition, it also called for passivation exclusively using nitric acid as well as the acceptable methods for testing to ensure proper passivation. Since it was first written, it has had 10 revisions over the years. One of the more significant ones occurred in 2013 when ASTM A967 was written establishing standards for the use of citric acid in passivation as well as testing criteria. Beginning with the 2013 revision of ASTM A380 it now specifically references A967 to establish best practices using both chemicals.