What is ASTM?

By Jim Berry | May 29, 2008

In need of support, ASTM International Committee D-01 continues to work on behalf of the paint and coatings industry.

During a social event at this year's 35th Annual International Waterborne, High-Solids and Powder Coatings Symposium held in New Orleans at the end of January, a small group of people with several decades of experience within the broader coatings industry discussed common interests. In response to the inquiry, "What is ASTM?" one respondent-a former president of FSCT-thought ASTM was part of the U.S. Commerce Department. Another individual-the manager of a pigments and additives supplier-thought ASTM was part of the Bureau of Standards.

The two responses confirmed conclusions from similar conversations over the past several years. Clearly, many within the paint and coatings industry use ASTM standards in a multitude of ways including purchasing, manufacturing and marketing with no understanding of their origin. Others believe ASTM standards to have been developed by a benevolent but unknown third party. This is far from reality; each industry is responsible for developing its own ASTM test methods.

The American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM), formed over a century ago, is a non-profit, consensus organization whose test methods have since been used by scores of industries and thousands of companies across the U.S. Over the decades, its reputation spread abroad as did the use of its test methods. In response to the dramatic increase in their global use, in 2001 it changed its name to ASTM International.

Today, ASTM continues as a small, independent non-profit organization with approximately 150 employees, few of which are technically trained. As perhaps the ultimate "bottoms up" organization, it uses free labor to write test methods, which it then adopts and markets. Its employees administratively oversee the activities of more than 30,000 industry volunteers, or ASTM members, who may labor in any of ASTM's more than 130 technical committees.

Only a small portion of the 30,000 volunteers attend meetings, typically semi-annually, where the 12,000 current ASTM test methods or standards are maintained, reapproved or new methods are written for items of commerce as diverse as wood products and the nuclear fuel cycle. ASTM oversight ensures that all decisions are made via an unprejudiced ASTM protocol that makes certain that products which it will endorse are developed through consensus. The protocol makes certain that: a) all parties to a method have equal voice and b) disagreements are resolved without bias that would favor any manufacturer, buyer or third party.

Standards, protocols and test methods of primary interest to the coatings community are the province of Committee D-01, Paint and Related Coatings, Materials and Applications, which celebrated its 100th Anniversary in June of 2002. Committee D-01 and its more than 50 subcommittees, including Industrial Protective Coatings, Physical Properties of Applied Paint Films and Chemical Analysis of Paints and Paint Materials, oversee more than 600 test methods and protocols for the paint and coatings industry. As is true of all ASTM products, each must be reviewed and re-approved at least every five years. Without re-approval, ASTM withdraws a standard or test method at the end of the eighth year.

In summary, ASTM protocols and test methods for coatings, polymers and many raw materials are prepared not by its employees, as would be the case within the Commerce Department or the Bureau of Standards, but rather by approximately 140 volunteers who gather twice annually under the oversight of an ASTM employee, or the staff manager. The staff manager contracts for the conference site, provides administrative support during the meeting and ensures that ASTM protocols are followed as the Committee reapproves existing ASTM documents or develops new ones.

For most of the last century, employers urged and selected employees to attend ASTM meetings to ensure that the company's interests were well represented during development of products such as analytical methods or other guidelines. This seems a much less frequent occurrence during the last couple of decades, perhaps because the new generation of management is unaware either of the importance of ASTM to their bottom lines or how totally dependant ASTM is on the expertise of career industry members to maintain and create its products.

The need for additional participation in D-01 by industry specialists has become increasingly critical but will approach crisis proportions this summer as several in major leadership positions have stated their intention to retire after very long service to the organization. Septuagenarians and octogenarians, these individuals continued their invaluable service long after retirement believing that ASTM methods continue to be critical to the health of the industry to which they devoted careers. All have held their ASTM positions for decades. They witnessed first hand the vital role of ASTM as society began to impose environmental regulations on their industry. Often, ASTM was the body that challenged the science of analytical methods that regulators might otherwise have mandated for the industry. Aware of the importance of this past work many, although long-retired from their companies, have been the backbone of today's Committee D-01. They continued to serve ASTM, attending the biannual work sessions at their own expense.

It is not clear that those soon-to-be empty positions will be quickly filled. Support for D-01 has declined over the last decade as attendance and other support has declined, perhaps because today's business managers are unfamiliar with ASTM. A number of test methods have been withdrawn because the Committee has not had enough workers to maintain them. For administrative funds, a voluntary donation is solicited from attendees at its semi-annual meetings, a rather sad state for an organization so critical to the billion dollar coatings industry.

Is ASTM a relic from an earlier time? Is it obsolete? Manufacturers of ultra high solids, multi-component coatings would respond with a resounding "NO!" ASTM's reputation and capabilities proved invaluable to that segment of the coatings industry in 2006 when a change of regulatory limits for VOCs threatened essentially all of its products. The industry segment sought and received assistance from Committee D-01 for the development of a new analytical method to more accurately measure the VOC released by these solventless products. One regulatory agency joined ASTM to work alongside those subcommittee members who participated in the effort. The result is a new test method that more accurately measures actual emissions from these coatings. The test verifies that the threatened coatings products comply with the more stringent limitations now in place.

"No" would also be the answer from those aware of the newer relationship between ASTM and the International Standards Organization (ISO). Representatives of ISO have traveled to the U.S. to meet with D-01 almost annually for the last five years. The two standards-setting organizations have pledged to work towards mutual adoption of identical test methods for the measurement of each coating and/or raw material parameter. Different parts of the globe currently rely on a variety of test methods for measuring the same coating parameter. To a manufacturer of coatings products sold worldwide, the financial benefit of a single set of test methods would be significant; no longer need the same parameter be measured with different methods depending on the part of the world in which the coating is to be sold.

In conclusion, Committee D-01 continues to work for the benefit of the coatings industry while the industry's contributions to Committee D-01 have dwindled. A selfless effort on the part of a few of our industry's retirees has masked the effect of the seeming indifference of major portions of the coatings industry.

Committee D-01 will reach a critical point at its June meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Unknowingly, so will the coatings industry. To remain a valuable asset to the industry, member companies must infuse Committee D-01 with volunteer technical talent instructed to take leadership roles at the bi-annual meetings. That talent must be provided by the coatings industry, either from within its own organizations or by funding knowledgeable, specialized consultants briefed in the interests of the employer to take on organizational responsibilities of Committee D-01.

What, then, is ASTM? To have any meaning, ASTM must be defined as you, your company and your industry. Absent outside support, ASTM has no resource to replace the technical expertise provided by your industry for the last century.

Several individuals in this generation of spokesmen now leaving D-01 are those that represented the coatings industry in the mid-1970s when the U.S. EPA announced plans to limit air emissions from use of paint and coatings. They subsequently incorporated oversight, collaboration and communication with EPA, and other regulatory agencies, into the responsibilities of D-01.

The author, Jim Berry, is an environmental consultant and managed the U.S. EPA's program to reduce air emissions from coatings from its inception until the late 1990s. He currently serves as chair of the Environmental Concerns Subcommittee of D-01.

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