By Ryan Urness, Laird Connectivity
Regulatory paths, cultural nuance, and logistical challenges across different countries all must be considered by companies aiming to bring a global wireless product across the finish line.
A friend of mine used to tell a story about his recurring dream. In the dream, he was competing in the 1500m race in the Olympics and held a seemingly insurmountable lead. He became so distracted by the possibility of winning that he lost count of which lap he was on.
Upon triumphantly crossing the finish line, he would see the other Olympians run past him as they continued to complete the final lap. After realizing his mistake, my friend would take off running, trying to catch up, but to no avail. It was a disaster on an international stage in front of millions of viewers. He would wake in a cold sweat, pulse racing, and with a lingering, disturbed feeling.
An equivalent “final-lap” scenario in wireless product development can be similarly overlooked: the time and cost obligations of test and regulatory certification for the global marketplace. In the past, wireless device manufacturers pursued international certification principally in U.S., Canada, and the E.U., with a strategy to distribute in countries that recognized certification and testing from these regulatory bodies.
This relatively straightforward tactical step did not necessitate a more robust strategy; essentially, there were no more laps in that race. However, as international certification and global requirements evolve, they represent another “full lap” in the race to get products to market. Engineering teams that lose sight of this as they cross the apparent “finish line” of U.S., Canadian, and E.U. certifications will find themselves attempting to “catch up” at the expense of both valuable time and unplanned spending.
Developing a strong international certification strategy has become more critical for several reasons. First, the market for wireless devices of every kind is truly global, both in geography and in market demand for diverse device types. Consider the market for medical devices like patient monitors, blood oxygen sensors, and other patient-care machines; it has grown dramatically in areas of the world that were not previously major revenue streams for manufacturers. Additionally, connectivity of these devices to wireless technologies like WLAN, cellular, or Bluetooth has become more ubiquitous. Indeed, such connectivity often must be a standard feature for products to remain competitive.
The process has grown more complex as more countries’ regulatory agencies create their own testing and compliance requirements. Many countries that previously did not have their own regulatory bodies collaborate regularly with agencies like the FCC to establish in-country wireless certification programs that mirror best practices while reflecting the needs of the individual country. The result is an opportunity for manufacturers to tap into demand in varied international markets. However, those manufacturers must consider the complex patchwork of testing and regulatory processes for wireless devices required across those markets.
Your advantage over my dream-tortured friend is you can anticipate that “final lap” and prepare for it:
Craft a Dedicated International Strategy – As outlined above, organizations have largely taken a tactical approach to international testing and certification in the past. If the goal were simply to achieve U.S., Canadian, and E.U. compliance and then market only to countries that accepted those certifications, the “international” approach didn’t really need a strategy unto itself. It was much more about managing a couple of testing processes, picking a distributor, and clearing customs.
However, this approach ignores countries with specific in-country requirements beyond simply obtaining U.S., Canada, or E.U. certification. To maximize revenue internationally, companies will need to expand the scope of their international certification efforts, and the only way to do that effectively is with a robust strategy that recognizes the scope and complexity of this process.
Target Your Markets in Phases – One of the most important aspects of your strategy will be establishing phases that enable you to tackle the certification process in stages. These phases need to be mapped out in concert with your organization’s marketing team, which will have priorities for markets and revenue objectives for each region/country. However, the marketing team’s instinct may be to launch in many locations at once, with no consideration for the complexity of international certifications. The process can quickly become unwieldy and experience setbacks if an engineering team initiates too many certifications at once.
As you plan phases with the marketing team, a variety of factors can shape how you prioritize markets. You may consider grouping together markets with similar characteristics — for example, pursuing certification in the E.U. and Brazil simultaneously to leverage Portuguese translation resources at the same time, or prioritizing the U.S. and EU testing, as these test reports are requisite submissions in obtaining many South American countries’ certifications. These examples are used to show that geography should not be the only driver for how you select countries to be part of a certain phase.
Don’t Count on a Rubber Stamp – Even countries that recognize compliance by E.U. and U.S. regulatory bodies may impose steps to complete the process. Many countries may, in fact, still request a test unit of your product, as well as extensive technical documentation, business information, and manufacturing details as conditions of regulatory approval. These additional requirements, in turn, often add significant costs, voluminous paperwork demands, and unforeseen time commitments from your organization.
Don’t Assume All Requirements are Equal – Ensure the testing you plan to use in other countries fits the requirements of those countries. For example, you may leverage testing performed for FCC certification in some South American countries. However, the FCC allows for modular certification, while several South American countries (e.g., Chile and Peru) do not.
If you assumed the modular certification gained for your FCC certification will be available for these South American countries, you are about to be lapped. Be prepared for more time and costs to get product-level approval in regions that require it when leveraging a modular certification.
Overcome Language and Cultural Barriers – To effectively navigate the maze of languages and cultural differences encountered during international testing and certification efforts, engineering teams need access to experts who can help communicate effectively, as well as accommodate local representation, to avoid cultural mistakes or administrative confusion that could delay or derail approvals.
Such experts may be available at the local level, or they could be international partners who can provide specific language and cultural support as needed. The key is to understand these needs early and ensure your team has budgeted appropriate time and money to secure support across each target market.
Be Prepared for the Logistics and Support – Most of this article has focused on preparing for the communications and paperwork involved in international testing and compliance, but organizations must coordinate movement of “un-certified” products to countries around the world. For that reason, engineering teams should be prepared to confront the logistical challenges of these programs. There are customs processes to navigate, brokerage agencies to interact with, and a library of accompanying regulatory forms that must be processed when sending an untested product into a country. Products also may have to travel to multiple locations in each country as they navigate the approval process.
Once a product successfully arrives in-country, its manufacturer often is required to support the local lab and regulators during the approval process — a process that is complex even when limited to just a few countries, and whose complexity compounds as more countries are added. The most successful organizations have a well-thought-out plan for coordinating the logistics and providing support to regulators, executed either by an in-house team or a third-party organization with expertise in testing and compliance issues (particularly in the target market/country).
Before wrapping up, I want to revisit a point I made when discussing phases, about the importance of collaboration with your marketing team. Certification and testing is a vital part of the go-to-market strategy for products, so best practices dictate that an organization’s engineering team and marketing team be aligned. If that dialogue starts early and stays consistent, the go-to-market strategy can consider practical challenges related to international certifications while also hitting the company’s revenue objectives.
About the Author
Ryan Urness is the Director of Test Services at Laird Connectivity, where he leads a talented team in compliance and regulatory efforts for both Laird Connectivity solutions and customer products through Test Services. He has expertise in international certifications, conformity assessment, qualification testing, and electromagnetic compatibility (EMC/EMI). He has over 25 years of industry experience and has been a member of the Laird Connectivity team for more than 13 years.