In the perspective of the new global competition, there is a widely held view that much of American basic industry is obsolete and unable to keep up with higher international requirements.
At Sparrows Point, Bethlehem Steel is putting the lie to that jaundiced perception, having just become the nation's first integrated steel producer to achieve the international quality certification known as ISO 9000. That seal of approval, widely required of European companies and now used in 55 nations, provides independent assurance that the steelmaker's quality-management meets tough world-class standards.
The certification will enhance the Baltimore County facility's ability to expand its exports. Domestic customers will also be able to count on tight quality control at Sparrows Point, from the production of basic iron to finished coated alloy steels. The achievement of the ISO 9000 standard is an effective marketing tool. The effort has also produced cost savings and improved productivity. Customer complaints dropped by a solid 40 percent last year.
The steel plant started the quality-improvement journey nearly 10 years ago, but began focusing on ISO 9000 standards seven years ago. Certification by an accredited auditor last year was completed last month. Because of Sparrows Point's long years of preparation, the approval process took 10 months instead of the average 44 months.
While various quality codes have been around for years, the ISO 9000 guidelines have gained universal acceptance through the European Union and are a prerequisite for much of international industrial trade. Encompassing all major aspects of industry, from design to testing of final product, the rigorous criteria require that all quality-control procedures be fully documented. That has meant writing down lots of unwritten practices and standardizing them between units and even work shifts.
The ISO seal does not guarantee products but the quality management procedures used by the manufacturer. That is increasingly essential to win new customers and maintain reputation. Bethlehem Steel's notable accomplishment is a healthy sign for its future and for the future of the Baltimore regional economy.