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Following the Fastener Quality Act

A government and industry odyssey

by Richard B. Stump


If ever there were a "The Cure was Worse than the Disease" award, the Fastener Quality Act (FQA) would surely win. Both the "disease" and the "cure" are associated with metal fasteners that affect our well-being every day as we drive our cars, cross over bridges and fly in airplanes (just a few examples of our dependency on products held together by fasteners).

 The original purposes of the FQA were to protect public safety, deter introduction of nonconforming fasteners into U.S. commerce and provide increased assurance to fastener users that, at a minimum, products meet stated standards. Upon closer examination, a secondary objective emerges that places stricter controls on fasteners produced in foreign countries, some of which were believed to be substandard products "dumped" into the U.S. marketplace.

 Passage of the act raises serious questions:

 Did the FQA cause fastener manufacturers to pursue significant product quality and quality system improvements? Or would quality improvements in the fastener industry have occurred anyway as part of the overall U.S. industry implementation of new (at that time) quality management system standards such as ISO 9000, AS9000 and QS-9000?

 Will the high level of quality improvement, so vividly described in the many fastener industry testimonies presented to the U.S. Congress, be maintained, or will it erode to a point where history repeats itself?

 Can other industries use lessons from the fastener industry as they make decisions related to both product quality and quality system requirements?

  For many years, U.S. industries have sought to establish quality-system practices that will convince their customers that their products and services meet quality expectations. Examples include such approaches as the Big Three's QS-9000, the aerospace industry's AS9000 and the telecommunications industry's TL 9000. The fastener industry chose legislation to establish quality requirements for its products.


 The FQA was created as the result of several tragic product failures that occurred during the 1980s. The fastener industry approached the U.S. Congress to take a leadership role in attacking fastener industry decline, manifested in substandard, counterfeit and mismarked fasteners. Rep. John D. Dingell of Michigan, then chairman of the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, became the champion for the cause.

 In 1988, after two years of studying the extensive list of fastener-related product failures, the subcommittee published its seminal report, "The Threat from Substandard Fasteners: Is America Losing Its Grip?" Recognition was given to the Industrial Fasteners Institute (IFI) and the Defense Industrial Supply Center, among others, for their material assistance in cooperating with the investigation. The Subcommittee concluded with deep concern that a major tragedy was highly probable unless vigorous and effective efforts were made to improve fastener quality.

 This Subcommittee Report was later analyzed by the U.S. Department of Commerce (in late 1998 and early 1999) to provide input to the General Counsel in a document titled "The Fastener Quality Act: Assessment and Recommendations," which identified the following salient points:

 Of the fastener problems uncovered by the DOD, the major controversy surrounded the issue of substandard Grade 8.0 fasteners that supposedly met the Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) Standard J 429 for Grade 8.0 fasteners but which, upon further inspection, did not.

  Nearly all of the DOD problems with the Grade 8.0 bolts were associated with fasteners imported into the United States. Manufacturers in Japan, Korea, Poland, Mexico and Spain were identified as the primary sources of these and other faulty fasteners.

 The major problems fell into the following categories: improper material substitutions, falsification of certificates, inconsistent heat treatments, wrong plating materials, omission of the stress- relief processing step, headmarks having mismarked or absent performance indicators, and dimensional discrepancies (e.g., in 1990 the Defense Industrial Supply Center initiated a process to inspect all Class 3 threaded fasteners and experienced a 40-percent rejection rate for fasteners made in the late 1980s.)


 Theorizing about a root cause for some of the problems, an IFI executive pointed to the OPEC oil embargo during the 1970s and its effect on the cost of quenching oils used in the heat-treating process. To meet U.S. commercial Grade 8.0 fastener needs, fastener manufacturers used martensitic, low-carbon boron steels, which require lower heat-treating temperatures and therefore use less quench oil. Supplying these Grade 8.2 bolts in place of the Grade 8.0 version can provide a 30-percent production cost advantage.

 Low-carbon boron-steel fasteners manufactured using the lower temperature heattreatment cycles must be properly identified with the marking Grade 8.2 instead of Grade 8.0. Unscrupulous manufacturers and distributors didn't change this marking on their low-carbon boron-steel parts and thereby contaminated the U.S. fastener supply base. At that point, culling out bogus fasteners became extremely difficult due to an assortment of marking problems, including improperly marked low-carbon boron-steel fasteners; fasteners without manufacturer's markings; and fasteners having manufacturer's markings that weren't traceable to any known producer.

 The problems centered on an influx of fasteners manufactured to, but used in violation of, ASTM A354 "Specification for Quenched and Tempered Alloy Steel Bolts, Studs and Other Externally Threaded Fasteners" and SAE J429 "Mechanical and Material Requirements for Externally Threaded Fasteners." The mismarked, low-carbon boron-steel bolts exhibit a potential for stress relaxation failure. Under certain circumstances, this failure mode can be catastrophic.

 At the conclusion of its exhaustive study of the depth and breadth of the fastener quality problems in the United States, the subcommittee made wide-sweeping recommendations that are too numerous to list but can be summarized as follows:

 A fastener held out to meet a consensus standard should indeed meet its requirements for fit, form and function.

 Strength, grade or property class markings, and manufacturer's marks shall be present as required by standards.

  All manufacturers or private-label distributors that wish to introduce fasteners into the stream of U.S. commerce shall register their identification markings with the U.S. Patent and Trade Office. No duplicates are allowed.


Milestone one: the Fastener Quality Act becomes law

 In 1990 when President Bush signed Public Law 101-592, now known as the Fastener Quality Act, the new legislation was heralded as the solution to a situation clearly imperiling every American with the possibility of product failure, injury and even death. The focus on faulty fasteners materialized in a powerful legislative approach to establish and enforce fastener quality.

 Government regulation of quality, as with the FQA, follows a well-beaten path, according to quality guru Joseph M. Juran. Key ingredients, with the FQA counterparts, are:

 The statute: P.L. 101-592 defined the purpose and the subject fasteners to be regulated, established how the regulations ("rules of the game") would unfold and named the Commerce Department as the agency to administer the FQA.

 The administrator: The Secretary of Commerce was assigned responsibility for monitoring FQA compliance, naming the director of The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as the administrator to establish the laboratory accreditation program.

 The standards: Required within 180 days of the signing, the regulations for FQA implementation were to become one of the most contentious parts of the FQA, with decisions not reached until more than 10 years later.

 A set of standards controlling fastener testing laboratories was derived from the regulations. NIST Handbook 150, based on ISO/IEC Guide 25, and its supplement, NIST Handbook 150-18 for fasteners and metals, provided the detailed product support and testing requirements.

 Test laboratories: Within 180 days after the signing of the FQA, a program for laboratory accreditation had to be documented, and implementation must have begun. The sufficient number of accredited fastener testing laboratories to meet FQA needs wouldn't be reached and announced by NIST until 1999. The Accreditation Body Evaluation Program was initiated to speed this process by allowing for private entities, such as A2LA and NADCAP, and foreign government agencies, such as the Japanese Accreditation Board of Conformity Assessment, the United Kingdom Accreditation Service, and the Chinese (ROC) National Laboratory Accreditation, to accredit fastener testing laboratories.

 Test and evaluation: At the onset, the FQA requirements emphasized final product sampling and test. This was a major fastener industry bone of contention, as in-process inspection of fasteners had evolved as the norm for many manufacturers.

 Regulated product marks: Fastener head markings are required for fasteners that come under FQA requirements. A registry program is provided for manufacturers that want unique head markings for their products.

 Sanctions: The FQA remedies and penalties are provided, designating the Office of the Attorney General as the agency to take action on criminal remedies, while the Commerce Secretary was assigned to act on civil penalties (up to $25,000 per violation). Criminal penalties for knowingly violating FQA requirements could be a fine and as long as five years' imprisonment (or both) for each count. Intentional failure to maintain records results in a fine and two years' imprisonment (or both) per count.


 Controversy surrounding the FQA was slow to form. The initial mandate directed the Secretary of Commerce to appoint an advisory committee within 90 days from the signing of the act. The committee consisted of 15 members from a cross-section of fastener industry-related manufacturers, distributors, users and standards organizations, who would act as consultants on the regulations and other matters for both the secretary and the director. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) provided the committee chairman. The Fastener Advisory Committee was initially chartered for two years beginning in Feb. 1991. Its charter was renewed for two years in 1993 and then again in 1995.

 The second major task for the initial mandate required FQA regulations to implement the FQA. Agreement on the contents of the regulations became a source of contention between industry representatives and the NIST group from this point on.


Milestone two: the first FQA amendment

 Part of the Technology Transfer and Advancement Act contained an FQA directive for a final rule (the first of three such notices) to be set with an effective date of November 1996. This time was required for NIST and those fastener manufacturers, distributors and user groups to work together to resolve issues with the initial legislation. The initial deadline for FQA implementation was set for May 1997. The additional time was needed for NIST to ensure that sufficient numbers of accredited fastener-testing laboratories were on board to adequately support proper functioning of the FQA.

 On April 18, 1997 (one month before the deadline), the implementation date for the FQA Final Rule was moved once more to July 26, 1998, to allow time for a sufficient number of test labs to be accredited by NIST and other agencies. At this point of FQA implementation, NIST's only legally permissible reason for further delay was an insufficient number of laboratory accreditations to support the FQA. But NIST also used this extra time to establish procedures for registering in-process inspection activities of manufacturing facilities that use quality assurance systems (QAS), thus accommodating advances in fastener manufacturing since the FQA's 1990 enactment.

 In addition to the extension, the Federal notice:

  Provided provision for fastener manufacturers to use quality assurance systems and statistical process control (SPC)

 Allowed manufacturers to sell as noncompliant any fastener remaining in their inventories, as all fasteners produced after the deadline were to be tested by an accredited laboratory or produced in an approved QAS/SPC manufacturing facility

 Permitted manufacturers to declare provisional compliance to the FQA if they were certified as operating QAS/SPC fastener production lines; notice was due no later than May 25, 1999


 April 18, 1997, is also notable for the Industrial Fastener Institute's release of its position statement regarding the FQA and regulations. Positions presented were:

 The FQA, as currently written, should be repealed.

 If the FQA were to be repealed, a consortium of major fastener purchasers, fastener manufacturers, the DOD, NIST and consensus standard organizations would prepare a biennial report to Congress with evaluations of fastener quality status, safety, standards and the need for continuation of this report.

 The FQA should be amended to simplify or eliminate needless requirements, scope and other provisions that obscure or fail to address the basic issue of substandard and counterfeit fasteners.


 Again, on June 30, 1998, NIST further delayed implementation of the FQA to Oct. 25, 1998, for the same reason: There were an insufficient number of accredited testing laboratories to adequately support the FQA.


Milestone three: exemptions and further delays

 On Aug. 14, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the "Aircraft Exemption" amendment, allowing fasteners specifically manufactured or altered for use on aircraft to be excluded from the FQA if the quality and suitability of those fasteners had been approved by Federal Aviation Administration programs. The law again delayed implementation of the regulations until June 1, 1999, or 120 days after the Secretary of Commerce provided a report to Congress that addressed significant improvements to fastener manufacturing since 1990, comparisons of the FQA to other fastener regulatory programs and recommendations for revising the FQA that may be warranted because of the changes identified.

 A consequence of this legislation was NIST's sponsorship of the workshop "Changes in Manufacturing Practices for Fasteners," conducted by ASME. The ASME Research Report of the same name concluded:

  Quality assurance advances, based upon computer control and sensor technology, have allowed fastener manufacturers to produce product with zero defects or six-sigma precision.

 Original equipment manufacturers are demanding fastener manufacturers to implement advanced quality systems technology and are getting a strong favorable response from the industry.

 Poor-quality or sub-par fastener products are not part of current recall and are adequately addressed by today's criminal fraud statutes.


 The ASME Workshop Breakout Session, which studied manufacturing technology, concluded that the problems or issues existing with fastener products were nonexistent at that time. A major industry theme emerged from this workshop: to refocus the FQA initiatives on fraud and severely punish those who engage in intentional fraud in any respect. Public safety would then be protected for today and the future.


Milestone four: 1999 FQA Amendments Act

 On June 8, 1999, with less than one month to go before U.S companies were to be required to comply with existing FQA regulations, President Clinton signed Public Law 106-34, the FQA Amendments Act of 1999. The fruits of the labor from countless hours of organized lobbying by the fastener industry and associated parties can be seen in the newest versions of the FQA laws and regulations. Significant changes achieved the following:

 Eliminated the requirement for NIST to approve organizations that accredit fastener testing laboratories

  Limited fasteners covered under the act to high-strength parts that are both through-hardened and grade-marked. Exempt fasteners are further described to provide certainty of which categories are in fact exempt from the FQA regulations.

 Exempted those manufacturers using quality management systems based upon ISO 9000, ISO 9001, ISO 9002 or ISO/TS 16949, such as QS-9000-, AS9000- and TL 9000-compliant companies, from the FQA regulations

  Allowed accreditation organizations not wanting to follow ISO 9000 guidelines for registration and accreditation to submit their own guidelines or requirements to NIST to establish how they will accredit bodies to register manufacturing systems for meeting FQA requirements, how they will accredit testing laboratories and how they will approve accreditation bodies to accredit testing laboratories

 Reduced paperwork and record keeping by allowing companies to transmit and store fastener-quality records electronically, provided that there were effective control mechanisms to safeguard authentication and prevent against alteration

 Brought fraud issues to the forefront through a U.S. Department of Commerce "hotline" to be used to report alleged violations of the law. Credible allegations will be forwarded to the Attorney General.


 In its July 1999 Fastener Advisory, the IFI commented "This… has been a textbook example of what a broad coalition of concerned companies, working together, can accomplish in Washington when key Congressional resources are supportive." Later, in the August 1999 issue, IFI stated, "The new FQA focus is on the prevention of fastener fraud instead of regulating fastener quality through government-required inspection, testing and certification. In enacting these changes, Congress expressed its intent that the fastener industry police itself."


End of the road

 What have we learned from the fastener industry saga? As the Secretary of Commerce announced:

  Congress and the Administration recognized the major improvements made by the fastener industry since the FQA was passed in 1990, reducing problems to a fraction of what they were at that time. Even as depositions were made to the Subcommittee on Feb. 25, 1999, for "unscrewing the Fastener Quality Act," the industry witnesses admitted that they hadn't really foreseen the complexity they would have to deal with as the act progressed toward implementation.

 The FQA Amendment reflects many of the recommendations made in the Department of Commerce Report to Congress, headed by James E. Hill of NIST. This report in turn reflected fastener industry input from the ASME-conducted workshop, held in Chicago November 1998.

  Fraud-like criminal offenses are addressed for specific misrepresentations and falsifications. The establishment of the new fastener fraud hotline facilitates reporting of alleged fraudulent actions or other violations.

  NIST will continue to operate a voluntary program to accredit fastener-testing laboratories.

 NIST is no longer responsible for evaluating organizations and subsequently will not maintain the Accredited Laboratory List. Accreditors that operate under international guidelines (ISO/IEC Guide 58 for laboratory accreditors and ISO/IEC Guide 61 for quality system registrar accreditors) may self-declare to NIST and thereby be eligible to offer accreditation under the FQA. Organizations not operating under ISO guidelines may submit their own registration and accreditation guidelines for review and approval by the director of NIST.

 Ultimately, the FQA owes its final status to the well-coordinated lobbying of congressional leaders to make the major changes. The critical issues needed to maintain the current, improved methods of functioning within the fastener industry and for their association with major fastener user groups is preserved. Congress was most accommodating to recognize the main requests, declare victory and move on to other business.



1. 100th Congress, 2nd Session Committee Print 100-Y. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988.

2. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers, (December 1998), CRTD Vol. 51, "Changes in Manufacturing Practices for Fasteners," Nov. 9–11,1998, Chicago, 7.

3. Department of Commerce Report, unpublished, "The Fastener Quality Act: Assessment and Recommendations," Feb. 24, 1999.

4. Industrial Fastener Institute, "Fastener Advisory," July 1999, Vol. 8, No. 6, 1.

5. Industrial Fastener Institute, "Fastener Advisory," Aug. 1999, Vol. 8, No.7, 1.

6. Industrial Fastener Institute, "IFI Position Statement Regarding The Fastener Quality Act and Its Regulations," 1997.

7. Juran, Joseph M. and Godfrey, A., Juran's Quality Handbook, Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. 35.10–35.15.

8. Newman, M. E. Department of Commerce press release #GG 99-79, "Simpler, More Focused Fastener Quality Act Signed into Law."

9. "NIST Publishes Final Rule for Fastener Quality Act," Quality Digest, June 1998, 12.

10. NIST Web site, www.nist.gov/fqa/fqahist.htm .

11. Wilson, C. (1996), "Mechanical Fasteners: Becoming a Regulated Industry," ASTM standardization News, July 1996, 30–33.


About the author

 Richard B. Stump, principal for Consultants in Quality Inc., is a Fellow of the American Society for Quality, a certified quality engineer and a certified quality auditor. He has a master's degree in business administration from Northern Illinois University and a bachelor's degree in metallurgical engineering from Lafayette College. Stump has been active in many facets of the Fastener Quality Act. He also consults in Six Sigma quality, lean manufacturing and quality systems. E-mail him at rstump@qualitydigest.com .

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