QMT Features: September 2013
Alternative approaches to product safety testing

 A look at four alternatives to the  more traditional approach of using an independent third-party test house.

By Jean-Louis Evans, MD. at TÜV SÜD Product Service.

Traditionally Safety Testing has been done at an independent third-party test house. However, this approach can create issues such as extended test times, which impact the time to market for new products. Another problem can be the lack of communication about the project’s progress between the test engineer and their client.

Fortunately there are now four alternatives to this more traditional approach that will still provide the manufacturer with a test report or product certificate from an independent third-party:

1.Testing at manufacturer’s premises (TMP)
One of the most popular alternative approaches to lab-based safety testing is TMP. This is a low maintenance approach from the manufacturer’s perspective as all they have to do is provide a work area for the third-party test engineer and a suitable power source. The ‘mobile’ test engineer will provide all the calibrated equipment required to facilitate the test programme.

Having the test engineer on the manufacturer’s own premises significantly speeds up the process as face-to-face interaction between engineer and client means that any non-compliances discovered during testing can be resolved more quickly. This leads to significantly reduced test times (typically less than one week) compared to those of lab-based testing.

2.Witnessed Manufacturer’s Testing (WMT)
Another alternative is that of WMT, where testing is performed by the manufacturer, with their own test equipment, in their own laboratory. This is witnessed, but not performed, by a third-party test engineer, who will also compile the laboratory test report and can arrange certification as well, if required.  

While this saves the manufacturer costs associated with handing over the full testing process to a third-party, their laboratory will still have to be assessed against certain key criteria, ensuring, for example, that the calibration of their test equipment is sufficiently robust to ensure that test results are within the required tolerances.
Once again, this approach significantly reduces test times as the people doing the testing (i.e. the manufacturer’s staff) have a greater understanding of the product and can redress any test issues more quickly than perhaps a third-party expert could.

3.Supervised Manufacturer’s Testing (SMT) or Acceptance of Client’s Testing (ACT)
SMT or ACT is a third alternative, and is of particular use to those manufacturers with an established safety test laboratory process and expert staff of their own.
The manufacturer will carry out the testing and reports are written with limited involvement or witnessing required from outside. The third-party laboratory retains control over the issuing of the test report and issues a report after the test results have been reviewed.

This type of approach does require some third-party oversight in the form of a comprehensive laboratory audit in accordance with the ISO /IEC 17025 standard, which would include the technical appraisal of test staff. The main aim of this international standard is to demonstrate that the laboratory operates a suitable quality system, is technically competent and is able to produce technically valid results. ISO 17025 addresses every element of management responsibility and activity within a laboratory environment. It is not exclusive to the test lab manager or quality manager and includes all laboratory staff whose functions relate to the quality of laboratory data generated.

The SMT or ACT approach allows the manufacturer to schedule tests at their own convenience and removes any imposition upon the working culture of the manufacturer, as there is no third-party involved in the day-to-day testing.

4.Remote Monitoring

The huge advances in broadband communications and video telephony have now made the remote monitoring of product testing a reality. This is a very new approach to testing and delivers the best of both worlds by offering a convenient alternative to traditional testing, but with some of the advantages of testing at the manufacturer’s premises.

Such a system means that products will be tested at the third-party laboratory facilities, but the manufacturer is able to watch and control remotely the view of the testing in high definition from their office desktop.

The service provides great value, as a manufacturer can access testing expertise wherever they are based in the world and frees up the time of engineering staff, allowing them to re-focus on other activities within the business.
Another key benefit is that, if any problems do arise during the test, the customer does not have to travel to the test facility to rectify them. They can simply log on and speak directly with the engineer, still benefiting from the advantages afforded by the face-to-face interaction of other testing approaches.

Finding the right test partner

While there are now many options of how and where products can be tested, how can a manufacturer be sure that the company they outsource to is delivering the right advice and will provide a reliable service?
The international standard ISO / IEC 17025 provides the answer as this sets out the general requirements for the ‘Competence of Testing & Calibration Laboratories’. The main aim of ISO / IEC 17025 is to demonstrate that the laboratory you choose:

1. Operates a suitable quality system
2. Is technically competent
3. Is able to produce technically valid results

ISO 17025 addresses every element of management responsibility and activity within the entire laboratory environment, so it is not exclusive to the individuals within it such as the test lab manager or quality manager. The standard actually involves all laboratory staff whose functions relate to the quality of the data generated by a laboratory.

Flexibility in test approach choice

While the view of testing is still often one of the traditional test laboratory, it is clear that there are many different options to suit individual needs. No longer tied to testing at the third-party laboratory, the choice can be made by manufacturers to undertake tests themselves or to outsource the work, or a combination of the two.
My advice would be to take the opportunity to review how testing is done within your business. Testing is often something that ‘just happens’ and is rarely reviewed regularly as it is not considered something that could be used to improve business efficiency. Identifying improvements and alternatives to the current status quo could significantly enhance the testing process. In the current economic climate, taking any opportunity to increase profitability, reduce time to market and guarantee safer products surely makes sense? l
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