Understanding Certifications for Electronic Hardware Products

Article Technical Rating: 5 out of 10

Most electronic products require multiple certifications in order to be sold. The certifications required depends on the product specifics and the countries in which it will be marketed.

The cost and time needed to obtain all of the certifications necessary for your product is one of the most overlooked steps to bringing a new hardware product to market.

Certifications may not be the most captivating subject, but to succeed it’s essential you understand the certifications required for your product.

We’ll mainly discuss certifications necessary in the United States, Canada, and the EU. However, other countries and regions will likely have very similar requirements.

NOTE: This is a long article so here's a free PDF version of it for easy reading.

 

Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

 
FCC certification

 

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) certification is required in the United States for all electronic products that oscillate at 9 kHz or higher. This regulation falls under what the FCC calls “Title 47 CFR Part 15” (15th subsection of the 47th section of the Code of Federal Regulations).

In Europe, there is a similar regulation called CISPR 22. The requirements are very similar, but somewhat stricter in regards to RF emissions at some frequencies. Other countries and regions have similar regulations on electromagnetic emissions.

For all intents and purposes, these regulations include almost all electronic products, since very few products are able to run at frequencies less than 9 kHz.

However, if your product is simple enough you may be able to bypass FCC certification by purposefully designing it to operate below 9 kHz. For example, some microcontrollers can be run at frequencies below 9 kHz.

All electronic products with oscillating signals will emit some amount of electromagnetic radiation (i.e. radio waves) so government regulators want to make sure that products don’t interfere with wireless communication.

There are two classes of FCC testing: Class A and Class B. Class A is an easier test to pass, and is intended for products that will be used in industrial applications. Class B is for consumer products and requires stricter testing.

Further, FCC certification can be split into two types: intentional radiator and non-intentional radiator. The category is determined by whether your product incorporates wireless capabilities such as Bluetooth, WiFi, cellular, or any other type of radio transmitter.

The FCC classifies an intentional radiator as any product that intentionally transmits radio frequency (RF) waves (also called more broadly electromagnetic radiation). A cellular phone or an Internet of Things (IoT) device are examples of intentional radiators.

A non-intentional radiator is classified as a product that doesn’t intentionally emit radio frequency waves. Any electronic product will emit some level of electromagnetic radiation. Intentional radiator certification is more involved and more expensive.

For this reason, you should use pre-certified modules for any wireless functions. This will save you the extra cost for intentional radiator certification since your wireless functions will be performed by the pre-certified modules. Doing so will save you thousands of dollars.

Electromagnetic emissions are measured using a specialized testing chamber called an anechoic chamber (“an-echoic” or non-echoing) which is a specialized room designed to absorb all electromagnetic radiation. The chamber is outfitted with sensors for detecting electromagnetic emissions.

The cost to rent a testing chamber is one of the primary costs of obtaining FCC certification. The rental cost for one of these chambers can be up to around $1,000 per hour.

At a minimum, each testing session will take a couple of hours. Most products require several sessions in order to pass.

 

Anechoic chamber for EM testingAn anechoic chamber for measuring electromagnetic emissions

 

Most entrepreneurs choose to hire a third party certification testing company such as Intertek or SGS to perform all of the necessary FCC testing.

Typically, you will need to make some modifications to your electronics design in order to pass the emissions testing. This includes such things as adding ferrite beads, capacitors, shields, and other modifications to reduce emissions at all but the intended frequency.

 

UL (Underwriters Laboratories)

 

UL Certification

 

UL certification is necessary in the United States and Canada if the product plugs directly into an AC outlet. Primarily the UL is concerned with the electrical safety of your product.

This certification is to ensure that your product doesn’t start an electrical fire, or cause other safety issues.

Technically, UL certification isn’t absolutely required to sell your product in the U.S. But, if the product does plug into an AC electrical outlet you would be crazy to not get this certification.

If a fire is started by your product and you don’t have UL certification, you will be held liable.

Even if no one is ever injured by your product, obtaining a UL certification can help eliminate potential failure mechanisms.

Working through the various design issues and obtaining the UL certification may help to significantly reduce the number of potential product failures.

Passing these various certifications, whether mandatory or not, helps to make your product more robust and less likely to have any problems.

You don’t want to have the issues like Samsung had with their Galaxy Note 7 phone where it was constantly catching on fire. Regardless of the size of your company, recovering from these types of failures can be next to impossible.

UL certification is not necessary for products that don’t plug into an AC power outlet. But, of course, most battery powered products need to have their battery recharged.

The key to avoiding the UL certification requirement in this case is to make it so your product uses a pre-certified stand-alone charger.

So, for example, if your product can be recharged by a USB charger, then the UL requirement falls on the charger itself and not necessarily on your product.

In this case you could either purchase a pre-certified USB charger to bundle with your product, or you could require the customer supply their own USB charging source.

The same is true if your product uses a non-USB charger such as a wall adapter power supply. In this case, once again the UL certification requirement falls on the wall adapter since it plugs directly into the AC electrical outlet.

Your product will never see that AC voltage since the wall adapter converts it down to a low DC voltage.

Save money and avoid UL certification - Bundle a pre-certified charger with your productClick To Tweet  

Most product liability insurance companies, as well as most large retail chains, will require that your product be UL certified even if it doesn’t plug directly into an AC outlet. Most larger retailers will require it just as an extra margin of safety.

This is one reason that many entrepreneurs begin by selling their product directly to consumers via their own website. Doing so may allow you to minimize the number of certifications required.

UL certification can be quite complex and confusing because of the numerous types of UL certifications.

If your product does plug directly into a AC electrical outlet then I highly suggest you bring on a UL expert to review the design before you proceed too far with development.

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CSA (Canadian Standards Association)

 

CSA certification

 

CSA (Canadian Standards Association) is an alternative to UL certification and is valid in both Canada and the United States.

 

CE Marking

 

CE marking

 

CE marking is required for the majority of products marketed in Europe.

CE is an abbreviation for the French phrase Conformité Européenne which translates to European Conformity. Originally called an EC Mark, this certification officially became known as a CE Marking in 1993.

The CE marking on a product is a manufacturer’s declaration that the product complies with the health, safety and environmental requirements in Europe. It is quite similar to a combination of the UL and FCC certifications.

 

RoHS certification

 

RoHS certification

 

RoHS certification verifies that a product contains no lead. It’s necessary for products sold in the European Union and the state of California. Since most products are sold in California and/or Europe their requirements have become de-facto standards for environmental regulation.

RoHS is one of the easiest and cheapest types of certifications to obtain. In fact, you may find this is something your contract manufacturer will do for you.

 

Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment Regulation (WEEE)

 

WEEE certification

 

The Waste Electrical & Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulation is a directive in the European Union that designates safe and responsible collection, recycling and recovery procedures for all types of electronic waste.

WEEE encourages the design of electronic products with environmentally-safe recycling and recovery in mind.

This regulation works in conjunction with RoHS. RoHS regulates the hazardous materials used in electronic products, and WEEE regulates the safe disposal of the product.

 

Bluetooth SIG

 

Bluetooth SIG certification

 

Although not technically a certification, if your product incorporates Bluetooth Classic or Bluetooth Low-Energy, then you must have it tested and “certified” in order to use the Bluetooth name/logo on your product.

Bluetooth SIG is an non-profit organization that oversees the Bluetooth standard and licensing of the Bluetooth technology trademark. You need to register and have your product tested in a certified lab. You must also pay to use the Bluetooth trademark. Unlike the other certifications, this is an international certification.

Even if your product implements Bluetooth using a pre-certified module you will still be required to obtain the Bluetooth SIG certification.

The normal Bluetooth SIG fee is $8,000 USD. However, they also offer a lower cost option specifically for start-up companies that costs only $2,500 USD. To qualify you must show financial documents proving that your annual revenue is less than $1 million dollars.

 

Other Certifications

Some types of products will require even more certifications. For example, toys have a very comprehensive list of required tests and regulations to ensure they are safe for children.

Or, if your product comes into contact with food then you’ll need to follow FDA guidelines on what materials can be safely used.

Because lithium batteries have the potential to cause a fire hazard (think Samsung Galaxy Note 7), there are regulations on the shipment of lithium batteries.  The air shipment of lithium batteries is especially restricted.

 

Final Thoughts

Don’t worry about certifying your product too early during the development process. Instead, you need to provide a production ready product for testing.

If you certify your product too early then any design changes made will require completely retesting the product. Testing is expensive and takes up to a month to complete (depending on the testing facility’s queue), so you don’t want to do it more than necessary.

Wait until you have manufacturing mostly figured out and all of the bugs worked out. Then submit a production unit for certification testing. Just be sure to plan for the testing and certification time, since you can’t ship product to customers until it is completed.

Regulations often require a copy of your instructions manual to be included along with the units to be tested. So be sure to have your manual finalized before you begin certifications testing.

Regardless of your product, or the countries where it will be sold, you would be very wise to hire someone that is an expert in all the various required certifications. It is extremely unlikely that your design engineer(s) will have the necessary knowledge to ensure your product smoothly passes all of the various certifications required.

Many startups plan to market their product globally without understanding that they need capital to pay for added regulatory tests for each country. I highly recommend that you focus your initial efforts on a single country or region, then expand slowly from there.

The USA and Canada share similar certification requirements so in most cases you can sell your product in both countries with a single set of certifications. The EU has the advantage that one set of certification requirements are valid for multiple countries.

Asia on the other hand tends to have separate regulations for each country. Unless you live in Asia, marketing a product there will only be a viable option once you are a significantly sized company with people on the ground there.

Although you don’t want to actually begin the certification process until you have a production-quality unit for testing, it’s still a good idea to start understanding the various issues surrounding certifications as soon as possible.

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