With the recent introduction to the Australian marketplace of limits on the unintentional emission of electromagnetic energy  by electrical and electronic devices, some new terminology and titles have to be understood by manufacturers and importers of electronic goods. While the role of a Test House is generally understood, there appears to be much confusion about the role of a Competent Body. The purpose of this article is to explain and clarify the role of a ‘Competent Body’ (CB), to explain what it is, and equally importantly, to explain what it is not. It is hoped that armed with this information, manufacturers and importers will be able to make a better-informed choice when it comes to deciding which is the best route to comply with Australia’s EMC Framework regulations.
COMPLIANCE WITH THE EMC FRAMEWORK
Overview of RCM Compliance Requirements
Australian EMC regulations demand that from January 29th February 2016, all electrical and electronic devices comply with an appropriate AS/NZS emissions standard for that product and be labelled with the RCM. All manufacturers must register with the ACMA and maintain a Compliance Folder that contains evidence of how their product complies. All products must be labelled with an RCM logo to show that they comply with the regulations. The penalties for non-compliance include fines, withdrawal and/or seizure of stock and even prosecution! The Australian regulations are based on the manufacturer’s declaration of conformity (DoC). Technical compliance with internationally harmonised standards is the sole criteria for market access. Compliance is established by means of testing to standards or by Competent Body assessment of a Technical Construction File (TCF). The test report or Competent Body inspection assessment report is placed in the Compliance Folder along with a technical description of the product and the DoC. The RCM label is then affixed to the product prior to marketing. There is no need to submit products or any documentation to the ACMA for testing or certification.
Routes To Compliance
The simplest way to prove that your product complies with the regulations is to test it, surprisingly enough! It is theoretically possible to calculate the maximum emissions from a device but that is impractical and very expensive in terms of time and computing power. There is no legal requirement to test at a NATA accredited test house unless your product is categorised as high risk (Group 2 ISM equipment or telecommunications terminal equipment). However, if the ACMA audit you (they audit at random, and as follow up complaints from customers and competitors) they may insist on testing at a NATA laboratory.
However, testing is not always practicable due to the size or special operating requirements of the equipment. Or, where there are many products with similar components it can be expensive to test all models. In cases such as these, it would be desirable just to test some sub-systems of a large system, or to test common components of a large product range together. In order to have the assurance that sufficient evidence has been gathered, an independent report from an accredited ‘Competent Body’ must be included in the Compliance Folder, that validates the claims of compliance by the supplier. The supplier retains responsibility for the product; the role of the Competent Body is solely to assess the evidence presented to him, which is known as the Technical Construction File or TCF.
As some sort of testing is required in the demonstration of compliance (either directly or indirectly) for the vast majority of products, regardless of which route is chosen, we will now discuss a key factor in the decision of where and how to conduct testing: the choice whether to use accredited or non-accredited test facilities.
Minimising Risk of Non-Compliance
The DoC must have a sound and justifiable basis. A National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) test report has national and international recognition. The ACMA will always accept as proof of compliance a NATA report or a report from a body that has an MRA with NATA. In the event that a product’s compliance is called into question, the ACMA will accept a NATA test report as final in any determination. Where the declaration of conformity is based on non-NATA testing, then the supplier may be required to bear the cost of testing at a NATA test laboratory. The test samples and the NATA test laboratory will be nominated by the ACMA.
Testing by an accredited NATA or Mutual Recognition Agreement (MRA) partner laboratory is the safest way of proving compliance. A NATA report can only be issued by a laboratory performing the test if that laboratory is NATA accredited for the specific standard applicable to the device. Non-accredited testing can be cheaper, but there is no guarantee of the reliability or the accuracy of the results. When the total cost of compliance in terms of time, money and energy is considered, the incremental charges for an accredited test laboratory is a small price to pay for complete peace of mind.
NATA Testing Accreditation Requirements
NATA accredited facilities meet the requirements of ISO/Guide 17025, demanding full calibration traceability of measurement equipment to the national standards at the National Measurement Institute of the CSIRO, and thereby to international standards. Calibration traceability is essential for the acceptance and recognition of test reports. NATA accredited test houses have been thoroughly evaluated by NATA and accredited as meeting internationally recognised standards for good laboratory practice, the availability of the necessary test facilities, an adequate level of technical competence and the appropriate quality management systems. NATA accredits laboratories against each EMC standard and a test report may not be endorsed with the NATA logo unless the test house is accredited to the specific standard.
Appropriate Standards Accreditation’s
Some NATA accredited test houses and CBs have a very limited scope of accreditation, often being accredited to one standard only. Some consultants are NATA accredited as Competent Bodies and Conformity Assessment Bodies (CAB). The NATA (or equivalent) logo often appears in advertising literature giving the perception that the Competent Body or CAB consultancy is accredited for testing. A NATA test house with limited accreditation may appear to have a wider scope of accreditation than it actually has. This practice is misleading and results in confusion and extreme disappointment among those unfamiliar with the vagaries of NATA rules for the use of the NATA logo.
CE Marking and Overseas Test Reports
CE marking alone or the CE Declaration of Conformity is not acceptable by the ACMA for RCM compliance purposes. The EMC test report must be available in the Compliance Folder for inspection by the ACMA auditor. The quality of reports varies greatly but if your report carries the endorsement of a NATA MRA partner laboratory, then the report is generally accepted by the ACMA. The responsibility for the accuracy of the test report still rests on the supplier that has signed the DoC. You should be able to provide evidence that the test report and the results contained within it relate specifically to the product which is the subject of the DoC. The assessment of a test report should show that the product was tested in accordance with the appropriate standard and that no modifications or changes have been made since the product was tested. It should refer to the exact build status of the product at the time of the test. NATA test houses report that a significant number of products that claim compliance with other EMC regimes fail the EMI tests because of modifications (whether intentional or not) performed subsequent to the initial compliance test.
The experienced EMC Test House can provide a competent assessment of your test report for a very low price. The use of Competent Body assessments is not required.
WHAT IS A ‘COMPETENT BODY’?
An Accredited Body
A Competent Body is an organisation that has been accredited by NATA to assess the claims submitted by a supplier in the Technical Construction File. Persons are assessed for competency in the relevant field and maybe authorised as CB report signatories. As in the accreditation of testing laboratories, NATA looks for quality assurance systems to internationally recognised standards (ISO Guide 17020 in this case) and technical competency as assessed by peer review.
A CB must additionally have access to NATA approved test facilities. Therefore, if a CB does not have it’s own NATA accredited facility it must have a contract with an appropriately accredited NATA laboratory. The Competent Body issues a NATA endorsed a document that is recognised by the ACMA as equivalent to a NATA test report for RCM compliance purposes. Note that it is not equivalent to a NATA test report when the product is to be exported to other countries, as the CB approved TCF is often not recognised outside of Australia.
A Technical Expert
The technical standard required is high, and successful applicants must demonstrate competency and experience in EMC. The most important element of a TCF is the test report and it is in the very specific details of the test that the validity of the report rests. Like a consultant physician who no longer practices surgery, a CB who is not regularly involved in testing must rely heavily on memory.
A CB with an accredited laboratory provides the highest levels of confidence.
An Independent Examiner
As the sole function of the CB is to issue a report on a TCF, it is obviously essential that such a report is impartial. Obviously, it would be inappropriate for a CB to issue a report on a TCF that he helped to prepare. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a CB reviewing a TCF containing a test report from the same organisation; the NATA assessed QA system would ensure there was no conflict of interest in this case. Similarly, a CB who has no test facilities of his own must take care to remain impartial when the test report comes from a lab with which he has a close working relationship.
It is important to note that seeking approval with a TCF/CB is not an ‘easy’ route to compliance, nor is it a ‘hard’ route. It is simply an alternative choice when testing a device to the standard presents problems. Situations where a TCF would be appropriate, are detailed in section 4. Because the Australian RCM EMC Framework (formerly ‘C Tick’) is, by comparison with the EMC Directive (‘CE Mark’), relatively simple, compliance by means of testing is the most direct and inexpensive route to compliance in 99% of cases.
What a Competent Body is not
A CB is not an inside trader, nor a rule bender, nor is he a magician who can make your compliance problems disappear. He cannot absolve you from your EMC sins nor take responsibility for your products! CBs cannot accredit your own in-house testing or that of your supplier whether overseas or at home. They cannot bypass basic requirements in the compliance requirements. It is not possible for them to assess a TCF that they have consulted on the contents or where they have carried out the testing themselves. If the draft TCF does not contain sufficient evidence, the CB cannot conduct additional testing themselves unless accredited for the standard, nor accept data from a laboratory that is not NATA accredited for the appropriate test.
Remember that the CB is primarily engaged to make an independent technical judgement on your products based on the TCF. It must demonstrate its independence, technical capability and total integrity. Employing a CB does not in any way diminish your responsibility for your products’ compliance. Remember this clearly, when you shop around for support.
WHEN TO USE A COMPETENT BODY
Compliance without Testing
The question of compliance without testing is sometimes discussed as an alternative but in practice, it has limited application to a very small number of devices. Some product variants do not need testing nor do they need Competent Body/TCF approval. Though it is possible in some cases to demonstrate compliance by theoretical calculation, testing to standards, whether in part or in full, will be involved in virtually all cases, It is not necessary to employ a Competent Body to perform the calculations. Any competent engineer can perform this task. It is recommended that this option is thoroughly investigated to ensure that the expensive consultancy costs do not escalate to a point where any savings are eroded.
Products too Large for Testing at Test Laboratory
Some products can be very large or complex and difficult or impractical to transport to a test laboratory so the supplier, with assistance from experienced EMC engineers, may prepare a TCF for submission to a Competent Body for assessment. The TCF will nearly always involve some level of testing. In some cases, EMC standards permit in-situ testing at the user installation. Where the number of installations is low, this option may be the least expensive route to compliance. In making that determination, advice should always be sought from a laboratory accredited by NATA for in-situ testing to the specific standard in question.
Product Variants 1 (minor differences)
This is the most common situation for manufacturers using Competent Bodies. There is some confusion about whether Competent Bodies are legally required for product variants, as used to be the case in Europe. Regrettably, some of the confusion is caused by self-serving interests. In fact, the recent clarification of the role of CBs in Europe states explicitly that manufacturers are able to select the worst-case product from a range themselves (or with the advice of a test laboratory, for example). The manufacturer makes the final decision but the justification must be sound. This is hardly a concession, given that it is the manufacturer who ultimately takes complete responsibility for the product whatever route is chosen. As his products go through testing, the supplier will gradually acquire the knowledge necessary to be able to identify variants that are benign and/or those that do not require additional testing. The ACMA EMC RCM Framework allows the presumption of compliance for electromagnetically benign products and those variants of a basic model that:
(i) are irrelevant to the RF characteristics of the device (cosmetic changes), or
(ii) do not increase the RF emission characteristics established for the basic model.
The supplier is legally able to claim compliance under the above circumstances without testing and without the involvement of a Competent Body. Subsequent modifications that do not increase the emissions of a compliant product do not require testing or Competent Body assessment. With the assistance of an accredited CB Test House, your company will gradually acquire sufficient knowledge and EMC expertise to allow you to identify such modifications.
Product Variants 2 (major differences)
There are situations where there are significant differences between variants in terms of design, layout, construction etc., but many major elements or key components are common. An EMC test plan could be developed to minimise the total testing by reading across results from one product to another. Naturally, this would demand that the TCF route is followed because the standards were not applied in full, and technical judgements are being made. This approach could lead to savings in testing costs, which would absorb the cost of employing a CB to assess the TCF. However, there is a potential escalation in approval costs in this approach, so exercise caution. Just ask someone who has tried to estimate legal fees in a court case!
Australia has introduced regulations that mandate compliance with EMC standards before products can be legally marketed. In the majority of cases, testing the product to approved standards will be the most appropriate route. In some cases though, this will not be possible or cost-effective and developing a Technical Construction File (TCF) to be assessed by a Competent Body may be the most appropriate route. Either way, when the testing is performed by a NATA laboratory that is accredited for the standard you need, the risk or uncertainty is minimised.
Where there are product variants, but they are similar electromagnetically, the supplier can perform the assessment without the expense of testing or Competent Body assessment. The choice of an experienced EMC Test House accredited to test to all the ACMA standards, and who is also a Competent Body, will give you a valuable partner who will provide all the expertise necessary in dealing with the complexities of regulatory approvals, standards and specifications.
Written by Chris Zombolas.
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Gavin O’Duffy, EMC Technologies, for his valuable assistance in the production of this article.
Chris Zombolas is technical Director of EMC Technologies Pty Ltd and director of EMC Bayswater Pty Ltd, A NATA accredited EMC test house in Melbourne, Sydney and Auckland (IANZ). EMC Technologies is also a Competent Body, Conformity Assessment Body and ACMA Certification Body.