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Going Global

The Importance of International Standards

by Joan Sterling

“One standard, one test, one time” is a mantra of global business. Joan Sterling of Intertek Testing Services’ ETL SEMKO talks about the realities behind this hoped-for result of the current shifts taking place in standardization.

Not long ago, a manufacturer’s cost of doing business internationally often outweighed the opportunities for growth. But as technologies and modes of transportation advanced, the borders that once held business back began to rapidly disappear. The Internet and the introduction of e-commerce eventually broke down these borders, allowing companies of any size the ability to market products around the globe.

However, even with the infrastructures in place to market and move products, differing regulations and standards from one country to the next continue to cause delays and create market barriers. In many cases, a manufacturer may need to produce multiple versions of the same product in order to distribute that product to countries where standards and regulations differ. As you can guess, the costs and logistics associated with this can really add up.

Are there solutions? Yes and no. Governments thought that many of these issues could be reduced by establishing mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) between countries or regions. In theory, most MRAs should allow one country to accept product testing data from another to obtain the needed certification demonstrating compliance with the regulations or required standards. Unfortunately, to date no product has moved from one country to another under the terms of any MRA due to economic, cultural, and political concerns.

There are, however, many other options that allow manufacturers to gain market access in more expedient ways. These include national treaties, accreditor-to-accreditor agreements, certifier-to-certifier agreements, and laboratory-to-laboratory agreements.

The Need for Internationally Accepted Standards

Perhaps the most viable solution is the development of international or global standards. This is the solution that manufacturers are demanding because it allows them to use one internationally accepted standard rather than many proprietary or regional standards. It is for this reason that standards developing organizations (SDOs), industry leaders, testing and certification agencies and globally minded businesses are pushing to establish unified global product safety and performance standards.

In fact, the recent trend is moving toward the use of international standards that have been developed in an open, transparent, consensus manner by any qualified developer. International SDOs such as ASTM, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), the Telecommunications Industry Associaton (TIA), the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) recognize that manufacturers from almost every country are distributing products around the world. This is particularly evident in the telecommunications industry where the global demand for products is driving the need for international standardization.

Newer technologies such as telecommunications and information technology are leading the way for international standardization. Due to the rapid evolution of new technology products, deep-rooted differences in regional standards have not had time to develop and are not evident.

For international standardization to be successful, SDOs, regulatory bodies, and manufacturers around the world need to work together. It is only with collaboration among all these entities that international standardization will become a reality.

One such example of a widely accepted international standard is IEC 950 for information technology equipment and associated business equipment. IEC develops international standards that address quality, product safety, performance, reproducibility and environmental compatibility for materials, products, and systems. IEC 950 is recognized throughout the European Union (EU) and is a necessary requirement for CE Marking, which is itself a prerequisite for market entry. The United States, Canada, and many countries in Latin America and Asia have also adopted this standard.

Benefiting from International Standardization

Manufacturers are the number one benefactors of the use of internationally accepted standards because they can often reduce time-to-market and lower development costs. Global standards facilitate the introduction of products to a broad range of countries.

However, manufacturers are not the only ones that benefit. Consumers also benefit since the latest technologies can reach the marketplace more quickly. In addition to time-to-market advantages, international standards increase the probability for consistently safer and higher-quality products.

International standardization is in the best interest of all parties involved. Although some emerging countries will fight it because of economic and political reasons, international standardization will only help their growth in the long run. The easier it is for manufacturers to introduce products into these countries, the more choices there will be for consumers. This would lead to healthier, more competitive markets and would increase the quality and availability of products.

Who Is Responsible for Certification?

Product certification demonstrates compliance with standards and regulations and is mandatory in order to place a product on the market in many countries. Ultimately, manufacturers are responsible for certification to the required standards. Some countries regulate the process, some allow manufacturer’s declaration of conformity, and others require third-party independent testing labs to test and certify products.

Certification organizations such as Intertek Testing Services’ ETL SEMKO, Americas Division, have locations around the globe and know the intricacies of international markets. By using an independent laboratory or certification organization, a manufacturer can be guided through the testing and certification process for each market where it wants to distribute its products. These organizations are up to date on all of the latest standards and because of their global structure have the network in place to allow manufacturers to test products at a local lab for global markets.

For independent testing labs, the development of international standards doesn’t necessarily change how they do business. The real value of international standards for the testing labs is that the benefits can be passed on to the manufacturers. International standardization allows these testing labs to become true one-stop shops, which can reduce the cost and time for manufacturers to obtain global compliance.

A manufacturer that knows its target markets can come to an independent certification organization for all its testing and certification needs. As more international standards are developed, manufacturers will be able to introduce products globally more quickly and efficiently. The movement is towards the ultimate goal of one standard, one test, accepted everywhere as rapidly as the markets and the regulators allow.

Where Do We Go from Here?

The use of internationally accepted standards will continue because the benefits are too great to fight this trend. Newer technologies are currently leading the way, and it is anticipated that other industries will soon follow. It is now up to the collective group—SDOs, manufacturers, laboratories, and regulators—to expand the international standardization effort and drive the market forward. //

Copyright 2001, ASTM

Joan Sterling is director of government relations, Intertek Testing Services’ ETL SEMKO, Americas division. She represents ITS on a number of standards and policy committees such as the ANSI Company Member Council, ANSI Executive Standards Council, ANSI Consumer Interest Council, TIA Wireless Technical/Regulatory Issues Committee, TIA Government Policy Committee, ACIL Government Relations Committee, and ACIL Third Party Conformity Assessment Committee.