Designing a New Hardware Product? You Need to Know About Compliance Certifications!
Having a great new hardware product idea is a good core for your startup, but you also have to make sure you get all the necessary certification requirements right.
Along with a sound business plan, it's essential that you include addressing any government and industry regulations your product – like all products – will need to comply with, including going through the testing and paperwork to obtain the compliance certification "marks" that will go on your product's exterior and packaging.
Bill Drislane, Senior Vice President of Manufacturing and Engineering at Dragon Innovation, a manufacturing services firm that works with entrepreneurs to launch hardware products and scale companies, says: "We know of products whose schedule has been delayed months through failure to pass required tests. Much redesign and retest was required to finally gain certification, and as a result the product launch was delayed and the whole project was under a great deal of stress."
Certification Marks, They're Nearly Everywhere
Look at just about any product in your house or office these days – or at least at its packaging – and you'll see up to a dozen or more little special icons beside the increasingly omnipresent bar code, copyright symbol, URL, and social-media indicia.
For example, check the back or bottom of your computer, cable-modem, or any AC adapter, and you'll see icons like UL, FCC, CE, and RoHS.
These mini-graphics aren't technology emojis. They're "marks" – symbols indicating that the product has been certified (often including by independent testing) that it meets or complies with a particular requirement, like:
- UL (or others): Can it be plugged safely into an electric outlet?
- FCC: Does it not give off interference-causing EMF?
- RoHS: Was it manufactured minimizing the use of dangerous/toxic substances?
For hardware innovators and start-ups, it's essential:
- to know about these compliance certifications as part of designing and manufacturing your new product idea and bringing it to market.
- to find outside experts allowing you as a new, smaller player, to successfully do what's needed.
All hardware vendors – large and small, established and new alike – are subject to the same government and industry regulations for compliance and certification.
Here's an introduction to what hardware innovators need to know about compliance certifications for the new products they are creating, designing, developing, manufacturing, and bringing to market.
What is "Compliance Certification?"
"Compliance" means that your product successfully complies with specific regulations and standards, like "can be plugged in to a wall outlet safely," "won't emit radio-frequencies that could interfere with sensitive medical equipment," or "works correctly with other Bluetooth products."
"Certification" means that the product has been checked for compliance, either through authorized third-party testing organizations or, in some cases, "self-certified." Passing a certification includes permission to include the appropriate icons/graphics in your product packaging and elsewhere. This provides buyers with a visual shorthand list (usually supplemented by a longer included or online document).
What Types of Compliance Certifications Are There?
Compliance certifications can be categorized by a mix of where/who they come from and what they are addressing.
For hardware creators, "There are four kinds of compliance certifications to typically be concerned with," states Drislane.
- "One, legally required* certifications," says Drislane. "The product must be tested and must pass, and (typically) a mark must be applied to the product demonstrating successful certification, for the product to be legally sold in a particular market. A good example is FCC compliance for electronic products sold in the U.S. Failure to comply can result in large fines and even jail time, at least in theory. In the EU, the CE mark is likewise legally mandatory."
- "Two, required non-governmental certifications, from organizations that hold some right or license you need, like Bluetooth, WiFi, or USB. This includes meeting any proprietary standards, protocols, and other specifications. So, for example, your Bluetooth headset or keyboard will work with all Bluetooth-enabled mobile devices, but compliance also means licensing permission to use the logo and brand name."
- "Three, optional certifications – not legally required, but sometimes a good idea. UL (also referred to by its generic equivalent NRTL) compliance falls in this category, as it is not legally required, except for some medical products. In this case too, if you want to get the certification, the product must be tested and must pass, and a mark must be applied to the product demonstrating successful certification."
In the United States, for example, this is done by Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratories (NRTL). The most well-known U.S. NRTL is UL (Underwriter Labs), but there are currently nearly twenty others.
- The fourth category of certifications, according to Drislane, are those for which compliance is legally required, but for which testing and certification are not required. "Examples of this include Proposition 65 in California and RoHS, WEEE, and REACH in the EU, which govern toxic materials and recycling."
How Do You Decide Which Certifications Your Product Will Need?
Part of the challenge is to identify which ones your product must satisfy, either initially, or longer-term.
"The most important decision affecting these requirements is your choice of the markets into which you will sell your product," says Drislane. Most startups satisfy themselves with the U.S., Canada, and the EU at first. Many other countries have certifications that are difficult and expensive, and often represent smaller markets."
However, Drislane, notes, "Many of the better-funded startups are also starting to include China so they can sell there immediately as well."
Next Steps: Making It Happen
Once you have a sense of what hardware compliance certifications are about, you need to understand how much money you need to include in your budget, and time in your schedule to get them, and who will be helping you accomplish this.
I will discuss in greater detail determining the time and cost for getting compliance certifications in my next post on this subject next week.
Like what you've just read? Sign up to receive GrabCAD's free weekly Digital Thread newsletter.
About the author: (Daniel Dern)
Daniel P. Dern is an independent Boston-based technology, business and marketing writer. His articles have appeared everywhere from the Boston Globe and ComputerWorld to IEEE Spectrum and TechTarget. He was editor of Byte.com for several years, and the founding editor of Internet World Magazine. Daniel also writes science fiction and children’s stories, and is an amateur magician.
All posts by Daniel Dern