Certified products can fail; Reliable products can be uncertified

Adam Bahret
Adam Bahret
Certification testing reliability

Check the backside of your laptop or any product’s package, there will be a certification seal (like UL, CSA, FCC, ETL, etc). It conveys the legality to use the product safely in the jurisdiction, but tells no information about product’s reliability.

Product certification is a defined process that involves testing the product at a licensed testing lab to get legal approval. There are defined testing standards that sets up the product in a test chamber to test for its functionality at extreme conditions and monitors for effects such as emissions, radiations, or interactions with other components. The goal is to ensure customer safety under normal use.

Reliability Testing also sets up the product in a test chamber at extreme conditions. While there are similarities, there are considerable differences between the two types of testing.

Certification Testing vs Reliability Testing
Certification vs Reliability Testing

A certified testing’s objective is to verify the functionality and effects of the operation. Does the product perform safely and within the effects as stipulated by regulations? Different countries and industries have different regulations to make the product safe to use. The primary benefactor of certification is to ensure customer safety, i.e. protection from fire, radiations, unexpected breakdowns, out-of-spec results. Because of this, the test results are not tied back to the design of the product. The results are obtained for the customers. The legal certificate is an access-badge to enter new markets and sell your products. It gives no information about how long or how well the product will perform.

We need Reliability Testing to know how long or how well the product will perform in the hands of the customer. What percentage of sales will be claimed under warranty? Will the product meet the 10 year life expectancy? How does our current product compare to previous generations? These are the questions we can answer from reliability testing. The results are directly tied to the product development team providing them information on how to make the product robust, modify design to withstand more stress, or add more features without increasing failure rate. Reliability testing can help improve products that will pass all certifications. To get this, we need to develop a perfect reliability testing plan that is anchored to the overall product development process.

Can we have a label for Reliability information on products to convey information, like a certification label? I see that as a legal nightmare. Reliability of the product is not a rigid statement like certification. It depends on variabilities in design, manufacturing, shipping, and use. Even units of the same product type will have different reliability values. Making a label that says ‘product may fail between 3 to 5 years with 80% confidence’ is not really useful. Customers might feel a promise broken when an issue arises. We can only make an estimation about an individual unit’s performance and assess the severity of failure.

When the severity of failure becomes lethal or hazardous, then the product certification testing must cover that. This is where the testing method transitions from reliability testing to certification testing. As you can see, both are needed to address different parts of the product’s performance. They are not mutually exclusive. Next time, you see a certification label, think of what it means in terms of performance. Customers should interpret it as safe but failure may occur; Designer should interpret the certification requirements as another factor in designing a robust product.

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