The testing and certification industry today faces an urgent challenge from its customers: make the product approval process more convenient and less time consuming, enabling manufacturers to get new and redesigned products to market faster.
In a business environment characterized by continually shrinking time–to–market windows, today’s manufacturers face increasing pressure to streamline their product development and manufacturing processes to capitalize on early opportunities in growth market segments. According to the Industry Week 2002 Value-Chain Survey, time–to–market performance was cited as a competitive advantage by more than 54 percent of respondents who reported a better than 90 percent product introduction success rate.
The competitive advantages of being first—or at least early—to market include the ability to capture greater market share, establish stronger brand recognition, command premium prices early in the product lifecycle, and enjoy a longer overall lifecycle. Individually and in aggregate, these advantages can result in greater overall profits for manufacturers.
With so much riding on a manufacturer’s ability to take a product from concept, to design, to production line, to store shelves in as short a time as possible, anything that prevents a smooth and rapid transition from one step to the next is an unwelcome—and often costly—obstacle. While modern methods have given manufacturers greater control of product development and production timetables, factors outside the manufacturers’ control also affect speed to market. One of those factors is third party testing and certification.
Factors Affecting Service Levels
A manufacturer’s frustration with the service levels provided by third party testing and certification organizations can be the result of both real and perceived factors. One of the greatest sources of frustration for manufacturers is the sense that testing organizations are not responsive to their needs. Whether caused by inadequate communication, failure to meet agreed-upon delivery expectations, or simply difficulty reaching the testing laboratory’s project engineer, perceived lack of responsiveness can tarnish an otherwise satisfactory and mutually beneficial business relationship.
Taking on too many projects can overtax a testing and certification organization’s physical and human resources. Although the temptation to maximize output typically overwhelms smaller laboratories first, even larger organizations aren’t always immune to this situation. When testing capacities are stretched to the limit, service levels may suffer. Product manufacturers should understand if capacity issues will affect the ability of a particular laboratory to complete their projects on time. If capacity is an issue, alternative testing and certification vendors should be considered. Establishing relationships with two or more laboratories can provide manufacturers with the flexibility to assign projects to the laboratory best able to meet timing and other expectations.
If a testing and certification organization is unfamiliar with the standards and applicable testing methods relating to a specific product, this can also have negative consequences for service delivery. Manufacturers should always inquire about a lab’s experience to avoid unnecessary delays in the product testing and certification process.
Competitive Pressures Spur Increased Emphasis on Customer Service
Industry surveys of product manufacturers have shown that testing laboratories are now selected not only on the basis of their technical capabilities and accreditation, but on the levels of service they provide. As other service-oriented industries, the quickest route to differentiation for accredited testing laboratories with similar expertise and standards knowledge is by providing a higher level of customer satisfaction than the closest competitors. When labs compete to provide improved customer service, manufacturers are the ultimate winners.
Customer service initiatives aimed at enhancing customer satisfaction are currently underway at the major North American labs. Although the specifics vary from organization to organization, the different initiatives seek to address many common customer service issues. In the words of CSA International Vice President Randall W. Luecke, "Service and timeliness are the ‘deal makers’ when manufacturers choose from among equally qualified certification and testing organizations. Advancements in technology and an increasingly global economy have amplified both consumer requirements and expectations. To meet these challenges, we are committed to making the testing and certification process faster and more efficient, enabling us to maintain the highest customer service levels possible without compromising quality.” By improving internal information systems and staffing a customer care center, we enable our engineers to devote more attention to helping customers, while ensuring that those customers have continuous access to information which can help keep their projects moving forward without delay,”" he explained.
Websites Offer Stakeholders Faster Access to Information
Providing access to information is an important component of customer service. The emergence of web-based solutions for information delivery has made it significantly easier for manufacturers, regulators, retailers, consumers, and other stakeholders to access the information they need from testing and certification organizations.
Manufacturers want access not only to helpful technical and project status information, but also to electronic records of their own products’ reports and certificates of compliance, allowing them to facilitate product updates and sharing on required information. Many of the major testing and certification organizations’ websites now offer downloadable literature archives, educational and technical standards information online databases of certified products, and information about product recalls. As online technology advances, web-based information sharing will become an even more valuable tool for enhancing service levels.
Addressing Other Issues Critical to Manufacturers
"Testing and certification organizations recognize that they are sometimes viewed by their customers as impeding speed to market rather than facilitating it,” says Luecke.
Examples of testing and certification issues raised by customers that are being addressed include:
Standards Harmonization. According to Luecke, testing laboratory customers want standards that enable, rather than impede, trade across national borders. The leading standards organizations are working with various parties to ensure that standards are harmonized wherever possible.
Component Acceptance. Luecke noted that manufacturers need the flexibility to choose from among all appropriately certified components when designing and manufacturing their products. Because accredited testing laboratories test products and components to the same applicable standards, the different agencies must be willing to accept qualified components that have been tested and certified by another accredited agency.
A Single North American Component Mark?
Taking the concept of component acceptance even further, CSA has proposed a single North American component mark. CSA Group President & CEO Rob Griffin presented a single North American component mark proposal at the Council for Harmonization of the Electrotechnical Standards of the Nations of America’s (CANENA) Council held in Merida, Mexico, in February 2003. Founded in 1992, the goal of CANENA is to "Foster the harmonization of electrotechnical product standards, conformity assessment test requirements, and electrical codes between all democracies of the Western Hemisphere.”
According to Griffin, "CSA is committed to achieving a solution on behalf of its customers. They are frustrated at the extra cost and time required to test components already certified by accredited organizations. This double-testing done by other certification organizations creates unnecessary roadblocks for an open and competitive marketplace.”
Although not all of the major North American testing and certification organizations currently agree on the value of adopting a single mark, the concept has been greeted with enthusiasm by the electronic products industry. Says Mike Motz of Liebert Corporation, "Manufacturing is a cornerstone of our economy. It is important that we have an environment that serves to provide the best opportunity for our success, for delivering products that meet the needs of consumers and offers the highest degree of safety. The current environment offers unnecessary and costly obstacles. We are very hopeful that we can remove these barriers by working together.”
Anti-Counterfeiting Measures Protect Certification Marks
While improving service during the testing and certification process is the number one priority for testing laboratories in the eyes of customers, agencies are also expected to protect the value of their approval marks by implementing and enforcing strong anti-counterfeiting policies.
Counterfeit approval marks can jeopardize market confidence in the products that bear them. Left unchecked, counterfeiting could undermine the system of standards, testing and certification that protects the interests of businesses, specifiers, and consumers. Many North American testing and certification organizations, including CSA International and Underwriters Laboratories, have initiated aggressive programs to detect, expose, and punish any unauthorized use of their marks. Vigorously protecting these valuable assets defends the interests of businesses and consumers who rely on legitimately issued marks for assurance that products or components meet applicable standards.
For its part, CSA International has recently formed an anti-counterfeiting alliance with Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP (Gowlings), a recognized leader in intellectual property law, as part of its zero-tolerance policy to curb the growing problem. Under the alliance, CSA and Gowlings will share intelligence and offer joint action where feasible. For example, if a manufacturer’s certified product has been counterfeited, they may be invited to act as a co-plaintiff with CSA, represented by Gowlings. They can also initiate parallel litigation coordinated by Gowlings. The law firm will also offer similar arrangements to its clients. "We have adopted a zero-tolerance policy towards counterfeiting of CSA’s product certification marks,” said R. J. Falconi, vice president, general counsel and corporate secretary, CSA Group. "Gowlings is well-known for its expertise in intellectual property law and this alliance allows us to effectively take action against those involved in counterfeiting in a cost effective, expedited manner, thereby helping to protect the safety and security of consumers and CSA clients.”
In addition to the Gowlings alliance, CSA International is pursuing similar strategic agreements with other security, auditing and enforcement organizations to combat counterfeiting internationally and it works closely with the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC) to raise awareness of the issue. It has also taken initiative in many other areas related to anti-counterfeiting, including: offering training programs to help retailers understand product approval marks and detect counterfeit marks; developing a white paper on counterfeiting; enhancing its marketplace surveillance of various commercial outlets; and continuing to investigate information sources from regulators, manufacturers, and consumers.
What Lies Ahead?
As manufacturers continue to adopt new product design and development processes, and implement even more advanced manufacturing methods to remain competitive, their testing and certification needs will evolve as well. According to Luecke, "The organizations that provide those services in the future must be highly flexible, responsive and provide their services in a timely manner, if they hope to meet the manufacturers’ changing needs, and maintain a loyal and satisfied customer base. Maintaining a strong focus on the needs of our customers, and the community as a whole, will enable CSA International to set the pace for excellence in the certification industry for years to come.”
To learn more, contact: Sue Dempsey, Director, North American Sales and Service, CSA International, 178 Rexdale Blvd., Toronto, ON Canada M9W 1R3, Tel: (216) 524-4990, Fax: (216) 328-8138,email@example.com,www.csa-international.org.
Sue Dempsey is director, North American Sales and Services, CSA International.