The International Organization That Makes The Pieces Fit Together

The most amazing coincidence happened to us the other day. Our mechanical pencil ran out of lead. Fortunately, our interns are always grateful for a chance to emerge from the basement and experience fresh air and sunshine. We sent one of them to an office supply store to fetch a fresh supply. Only after his departure did it occur to anyone that we neglected to tell him what brand of mechanical pencil needed refilling. When he returned with a package of mechanical pencil leads from some off-brand company, we were prepared to punish him by making him sit through another screening of Zyzzx Road.

Miraculously, however, our intern was spared from this horrible ordeal because the pencil leads he purchased worked just fine. We were all baffled. How could some off-brand pencil lead manufacturer randomly create a product that fits perfectly in our state-of-the-art mechanical pencil?

It turns out there was nothing random about it. The pencil lead worked because of a 7-page document that costs $7.58 to purchase. That document is ISO 9177-1:2016, or, as it is lovingly known by its readers, Mechanical pencils for technical drawings — Part 1: Classification, dimensions, performance requirements and testing. It is just one of thousands of publications produced by an international organization that is responsible for keeping the world out of utter chaos.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. It is the world’s largest developer and publisher of international standards. ISO acts as a network for the national standards bodies of 167 nations. It is responsible, thanks to ISO 9177-1:2016, for ensuring that when your mechanical pencil needs a refill, you’re able to find what you need easily.

Imagine a world without standards. If every car manufacturer chose their own design for gas tanks, what would it be like when you go to the gas station? Suppose the opening to Ford’s gas tanks are circles, GM’s are rectangles, and Toyota’s are in the shape of Marlon Brando’s profile. Gas station pumps would have to have nozzles to fit all of them, or you would have to go to a gas station that catered to your make and model of vehicle.

Have you ever considered how convenient it is that shipping containers are in the size and shape that they are? They fit so nicely on cargo ships, can be easily fitted on railway cars, and can go on the back of a semi-truck as if they were designed that way. That doesn’t happen by accident. It is a result of an agreement between nations and the manufacturers in those nations to abide by ISO Standard 668.

The ISO has promulgated standards for more than 24,000 items, processes, and organizations. These include manufacturing, transportation, medicine, the environment, communications, information technology, and just about any area of human endeavor you can imagine. There is even a standard on how to run a standards organization (IWA-30, parts 1 and 2).

To get the standard you want, you may need to shell out some money. All of the standards fill more than 1 million pages in an 86-volume print version that will set you back $14,607.00. Individual standards range in price from a little to a lot. The above-referenced standard for shipping containers is a paltry $16. Standard 3103, laying out the process for making an acceptable cup of tea, runs for $60. If you want all the standards in the 26262 series about road and vehicle safety, that’s going to cost you $1,600.

The top five best sellers fall within the following categories:

image from the standard on rubber gloves
  • 16.6 % Information technology, graphics and photography
  • 16.5 % Transport
  • 11.6 % Health, medicine and laboratory equipment 
  • 11.2 % Mechanical engineering 
  • 7.5 % Non-metallic materials

Since we blew our entire budget for the month on lead for a mechanical pencil, we were unable to purchase any of the standards in the catalog. Fortunately, there are some available for free. For example, ISO 374-5:2016 is the method behind the magic that we know as surgical rubber gloves. It covers such minutia as the thickness of the material, the composition of the material, the length of the wrist covering, and the symbols that can be used on the product to show that they meet the requirements of the standard.

The only thing the ISO does not seem to have an opinion about is a standard way to end an article that explains why we have international standards. To fill this need, Commonplace Fun Facts offers CFF-SO-001. It can be yours for the laughingly-low price of $5. Get yours now before we have to develop a standard for how to tell customers that the product they want is sold out.

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