Last April, 58 multinationals - among them the ''Who's Who'' of the high-tech, telecom, aerospace and automotive industries - called for suppliers to declare conformity to the ISO 9000 international quality assurance standard by the year 2005.
This call was part of a 40-resolution manifesto drafted in Munich under the auspices of the International Committee on Standards Assessment. In general, the Munich manifesto protests the high costs of standards and testing practices, not to mention the proliferation of standards that would require additional third-party registration.By calling for suppliers to declare conformity to ISO 9000, the multinationals are saying in effect that they will certify themselves for the standard, rather than rely on obtaining certification through third parties. This does not mean they are calling for a ban on third-party registration.
The multinationals also are protesting the continued development of management system standards that require third-party registration, as well as sector-specific versions of ISO 9000. And they're joining forces to support all efforts to harmonize standards and testing practices worldwide and regulate accreditation - the process of providing criteria for agencies that conduct industry audits and registration.
Still, support for the Munich resolutions is not unanimous, says Henry Line, chairman of the standards assessment committee and vice president of global product standards for AMP Inc. Mr. Line also is vice chairman of the American National Standards Institute.
American automobile companies, for example, reportedly do not support supplier declaration to ISO 9000, which flies in the face of their own mandate to QS-9000 (the automotive ISO 9000 hybrid).
The companies that stand behind the Munich manifesto are giants in their field - IBM, Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, Phillips, Siemens, General Motors, Ford, Polaroid, Microsoft and AMP. They all have highly evolved, mature quality systems in place, as well as products that are known and respected worldwide.
Because they are major exporters, these companies face a formidable array of standards and testing practices required to enter world markets. And that's in addition to the standards mandated by their own industries, like QS-9000.
Since the formation of the European Union and establishment of the World Trade Organization, everyone, or so it seems, has gotten into the standards game. Standards bodies have been exploring creation of additional management system standards with third-party registration plans attached. Governments have tacitly mandated some of these standards, and economic blocs are promoting their own testing practices.
The costs to industry of meeting redundant standards and testing practices have been spiraling up, and there seems no relief in sight. Some of these corporations - including Motorola, Hewlett-Packard, AMP and E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. - have been battling behind the scenes for at least five years to reduce the costs of standards and related practices.
FOR THE MATURE
They are among several key corporations involved with top registrars, such as Lloyd's and KEMA, in a pilot program to explore alternative registration. (See ''Alternative registration shortcuts? Take a lesson from the multinationals,'' Aug. 27, 1997, Page 16C)
Alternative registration is designed for companies with ''mature'' quality systems only. It provides a blanket, companywide registration for a large corporation instead of the current practice of registering individual plants within a company.
Although the U.S. Registrar Accreditation Board and the American National Standards Institute have accepted alternative registration, this practice has not gained wide acceptance with registrars. Nor has it moved beyond the pilot stage into the general marketplace.
In the meantime, there is growing evidence that standards and testing practices are becoming the weapons of economic warfare in today's global economy. Indeed, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, in tandem with the Commerce Department, are constantly on the alert for the use of standards as non-tariff trade barriers.
Because standards are supposed to be voluntary and market-driven, there is no direct government regulation of this field in the United States - nor in most of the world, for that matter. EU officials, for example, have been advising companies that complain about the high cost of registration to take matters in their own hands.
Registrars are the clients of industry, so industry should dictate to the registrars what the market will bear - not the other way around, these officials argue.
ICSA SESSIONS SEEK
TO REALIGN SYSTEM
The International Committee on Standards Assessment's sessions in Munich amount to just that: industry deciding to take charge of the global market as far as standards are concerned.
In a broader context, the actions of the 58 companies that participated in the sessions also indicate a grass-roots effort to realign the international standards system - and concurrently the global economy - to their own designs and for their own market benefit.
Some of these multinationals, for instance, are also involved information of the International Accreditation Forum, a newly incorporated organization that aims to harmonize accreditation practices worldwide. Depending on the course it takes, this forum could have a major impact on how the global economy functions.
These same companies have invested heavily in creating both the infrastructure and software linkages for the Internet. That means they have a vested interest in controlling the standards that dictate design for Internet access.
For example, Microsoft is currently battling Sun Microsystems over whether Sun's Java Platform Specifications will become an international standard. The outcome could shape the future of the cyberspace.
None of these companies have announced plans to cease ISO 9000 efforts. They are merely stating that they will self-declare to ISO 9000 by the year 2005, which is seven years from now.
That leaves lots of wriggle room and negotiating time between the companies in question and their registrars.
Some behind-the-scenes negotiating reportedly is already taking place. The Independent Association of Accredited Registrars has called for a meeting of its members and that of the International Committee on Standards Assessment.
Companies on the Committee want to make it clear that they support international standardization and the continued harmonization of standards and testing practices. They just don't want to continue to pay the current price of admission to the global marketplace, which, for them, amounts to millions of dollars annually.
My next column will focus on what small and medium-sized companies can do in the aftermath of the Munich Manifesto.