Decoding compliance certification icons

What UL, CE, FCC, TUV, RoHS, and those other certification 'marks' under your laptop mean

When you get a new desktop, notebook computer, or even a printer or other peripheral, the front or top often sports a few stick-on logos touting the technology inside, like "Windows 7 Certified," "Intel Inside," Bluetooth, WiFI, etc.

But if you've ever looked at the bottom of your notebook or the back of your desktop PC (and/or on the packaging and in the documentation), especially one made within the last few years, you see a different checkerboard of little icons -- a.k.a. "marks," like UL, CE, FCC, TUV, RoHS, ENERGY STAR, and more.

compliance certification icons

Many companies also post product certification marks on their website. Panasonic, for example, includes certification information for its Toughbook rugged portable computers (select any of the "Solutions by Industry" entries, e.g., "Field Service," and you'll see a "Certifications" entry).

lenovo AC adapter

Even the humble AC power supply and humbler power cord sport at least one or two such marks. (The one for the Lenovo IdeaPad U260, for example, has so many it fills an entire side, like the tats on Ray Bradbury's Illustrated Man.)

And while product safety certifications apply to hardware, even software developers need to be aware of them. Hardware design can impact functions like wireless connectivity and sensitivity; software design can impact power, heat and cooling activity, etc. -- or call for more hardware oomph than is legal.

Here's an introduction and overview to get you started understanding product certifications, their importance, and how they relate to product design and development cycle planners (along with resellers and buyers).

Every icon tells a story

Most of these back/bottom certification marks don't represent information about whether the product does what it's supposed to. Instead, they tell you about aspects of the device's safe operation or environmental/ecological product manufacture/return lifecycle.

For example, electrical products to be sold in North America require a safety mark from OSHA-approved Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory (NRTL) -- meaning an organization that's authorized and qualified (and audited) to perform the tests specified in the standard. Having this certification mark assures the buyer/user that the device is electrically safe to use, (i.e, when you plug it in and turn it on, it won't electrocute you, go up in flames, etc.).

NRTLs for electrical safety testing include Underwriter Laboratories, TÜV Rheinland, Factory Mutual Research Corporation, CSA International.

Some certification marks indicate what kinds of physical and environmental abuse the device can tolerate. For example, the U.S. government's MIL-STD-801G standard lists over a dozen types of "ruggedness" testing, (e.g., being dropped from three or six feet, how much heat or cold or "thermal shock" going suddenly from one to the other, humidity, fungus, altitude, vibration, etc. -- the lab facilities for testing these are interesting places.) IP (Ingress Protection) Rating marks indicate how much protection the case provides against physical objects (fingers, screwdrivers, dirt, sand, etc.) and liquids (rain, cleaning fluids).

Other certification marks confirm that the device has been tested in terms of radio-frequency (RF) and electromagnetic interference (EMI). This includes ensuring that RF from cell phones, WiFI routers, microwave ovens, cordless phones, etc. won't interfere with the device's operation. Similarly, devices have to be tested to make sure they aren't emitting a too-high level of RF that could interfere with another device (like airplane navigation, or a heart monitor). Any device with a "radio" (including WiFi, Bluetooth, cellular, WiMAX) emits RF, of course -- and just about anything with a microprocessor can be an "unintentional RF radiator."

Other certifications vouch for things like "safe to use in an explosive atmosphere."

Some certification marks confirm that the product is environmentally responsible, in terms of energy consumption, and in aspects of the product life cycle from manufacture through return. Marks like 80-Plus and the U.S. Department of Energy's EnergyStar certify energy efficiency. On the environmental/ecological compliance side, the RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) mark states that specified substances aren't present; REACH (Regulation, Evaluation, Authorization, and restriction of CHemical substances) and WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) Directives.

The importance of certification marks

Certification marks indicate that the product meets the requirements -- possibly verified by testing and/or on-site checks -- specified in a standard.

Standards come from recognized standards organizations (national, regional, industry, or a mix). According to CSA International's Who's Who Behind the Marks, "A standard is a document that has been prepared, approved, and published by a recognized standards organization, and contains rules, requirements, or procedures for an orderly approach to a specific activity. Standards may include product design requirements, test methods, classifications, recommended practices, and other considerations.

If the right certifications aren't there, vendors -- and resellers -- are bound to have problems.

For example, Customs often won't in let products lacking the requisite certifications -- such as a CE Mark if it's trying to enter the European Union -- instead letting pallets sit at the import sheds. And many stores and other resellers won't stock and sell your products because without certain certifications, there's a greater risk of product return. Some unions, and some insurance policies, require products have safety certifications.

Certifications also matter to buyers. Certifications, or the lack of them, may also influence purchase decisions. Many purchasers may want -- or prefer -- energy-savings and other environmentally "green" certifications. Users with specific usage requirements, such as for use in medical facilities where there's lots of stray fluids along with RF-sensitive gear, first-responders and others in high-vibration environments, will also be looking for specific certifications.

If you're a product designer/developer, it's important to understand what standards your product has to meet, tests it has to pass, and documentation it has to have, for your company to sell it in its target geographic and vertical markets.

There are hundreds of thousands of standards globally, prepared by close to 200 organizations. ANSI has, for example, identified about 90,000 for the U.S. But only a dozen or so types apply to a computer hardware vendor.

However, to complicate matters, there isn't -- yet -- one single global standards organization, nor one single set of standards for a given product that apply globally. Many countries and multi-country geographic regions (e.g., the European Union) have their own standards organization.

"Harmonization" efforts like the IECEE's CB Scheme are working to bring things close to "one product, one test, one mark." Meanwhile, even where CB Scheme-certified products get to avoid the time and cost of some redundant tests, vendors applying for certifications in additional geographic regions still can face "homologation" fees reflecting additional tests, paperwork (languages, different reports, etc.) and other administrative costs.

Starting early minimizes certification time, cost, effort

If you were, say, starting a restaurant or building a house without checking with city hall and the various inspectors until just before Opening Day... going back to Square Two or Square One could be expensive and time-consuming, making you blow your budget and miss your market window. Or even scotch the entire project.

It's the same deal with certifications -- you have to be aware of standards, and take them into consideration so you will be creating a product that complies with them, from the very beginning of a product's life cycle. For example, safety, EMC and performance requirements might have a significant impact or influence on your product design.

You also don't want to wait until the product prototype or sample is ready for testing to line up certification and testing partners, or to learn what documents you need to have been accumulating.

"What's expensive is failing to sit down with a compliance expert at the start of the design phase," adds Jason Chesley, Strategic Account Manager at CSA International, a global firm that does product safety and performance testing."

"Don't wait until the tail end," stresses, Ken DeVore, Director, F-Squared Laboratories, a full service product conformity assessment organization. "Or it will cost more."

"Have a good mechanical engineer, a good electrical design engineer, and a good compliance engineer, who can help incorporate the various design techniques that will yield a robust design that will stand up against the stringent requirements of the applicable standards," advises Francisco Lazcon, Western Region Sales Manager, MET Laboratories, Inc., an independent electrical testing and certification lab.

The time and costs for obtaining certifications for a product like a desktop or notebook computer -- which includes creating or obtaining paperwork, having tests performed and getting the result reports -- may range anywhere from $25,000 to $150,00 and up, and add a few weeks to a few months to the product development cycle.

The first time around, expect it to cost more and take longer; with experience (and more of the process in gear), it should get better.

And don't despair: As the steady stream of new products should make clear, compliance and certification hurdles are hurdle-able. The processes recognize vendors' needs to bring new products to market in a timely fashion against often narrow windows.

But again: don't dawdle.

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