Is Costly Certification A Barrier In Kickstarting An Electronics Startup?

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With smart choices, you can beat certification hurdles and bring your startup dreams to life, minus the crippling costs.

Low-budget startups often hit a wall with high certification costs, causing most to abandon their dreams. So, is there really no way for a startup to go through a less costly certification process? Well, luckily, the answer is Yes. Here is how?

Recently, I tried to launch my next product and design in the US and European markets, rather than a Kickstarter and crowdfunding project campaign. One thing really struck me hard: the very high cost of certification for my board and design. As a working engineer, plus also trying to run a startup, it became impossible to carry out the certification on a low budget. Luckily and unknowingly, I followed the design process that gives a huge relief from this high cost of certification, and I thought many more like me may be facing the high cost of certification process.

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I am writing this to share my experience, the barriers that I faced, and the solutions that I see. This is solely based on my personal story and experience. First, let me make you aware of how high certification costs hit your ROI (return on investment).

Certification costs can include fees for testing, documentation, consulting, and potential design changes to meet regulatory standards. Here are some ways in which certification costs can impact electronics startups:

Financial strain

Startups typically operate with limited funding, and the expenses associated with certification can strain their budgets. Certification costs can vary widely depending on the product, region, and standards involved. These costs can include testing fees, consultant fees, and potential redesign expenses if the initial design doesn’t pass certification.

Delays in time-to-market

Certification processes can be time-consuming. Delays in obtaining certifications can lead to postponed product launches and missed market opportunities. This can be especially challenging for startups trying to establish themselves in a competitive market.

Unpredictable costs

The actual certification costs might be hard to predict accurately. Testing failures or the need for design changes to meet standards can lead to unexpected expenses.

bis certification cost for isi mark
Type of Fees/Charges Amount (₹)
Application fee 1000
Audit charges 7000
Sample test fee As applicable
License fee 1000

So, is there no way to avoid this?

Well, yes, there is a way. First of all, if you are a hobbyist, make five devices from a single design without requiring any testing as per section 15.23 of 47 CFR Ch.1: However, there are several key points you need to consider:

Personal use

The exemption is generally intended for personal use and not for commercial purposes. It’s not intended to allow individuals to manufacture and sell devices as a business.

Limited distribution

The exemption often includes restrictions on distribution. In many cases, the devices exempted under this rule are not allowed to be sold or distributed in significant quantities.

Modifications

The devices must be constructed in accordance with the regulations, and any modifications made by the hobbyist should not exceed the limits set forth by the regulations.

Interference

The devices built under this exemption must not cause harmful interference to other authorised radio services.

Labelling and identification

Devices constructed under this exemption might still need to comply with labelling and identification requirements to indicate that they are not FCC-certified.

It’s important to note that while this exemption might allow hobbyists to build a small number of devices without certification, if you are planning to sell devices in any significant quantity or for commercial purposes, you are likely to be subject to FCC certification requirements. Additionally, regulations can change, so it’s always a good idea to consult the latest version of the FCC rules or seek legal advice to ensure you are in compliance with the regulations.

Fig. 1: ISO price chart (Source: https://isoconsultancy.in)
Fig. 1: ISO price chart (Source: https://isoconsultancy.in)

For India BIS, ISI, and ISO certification, you can get these at an affordable cost easily.

So, if you are an engineer who wants to share and design for manufacturing as a hobbyist, then you no longer need certification to sell your design. But if you are a startup and launching the product design in the market at a large scale, you can proceed further.

Ways to avoid FCC certification costs

If you want to avoid the high FCC certification costs, it starts at the component selection stage. Yes, before proceeding with the design, you need to select the right components for your design. Luckily and unknowingly, I selected the correct components in my design that gave a huge cost relief and high ROI on each product sale. Here is how:

The FCC provides a certification option known as Modular Certification, which enables designers to utilise pre-certified wireless modules in their designs. This means you can purchase modules that have already been FCC-certified and integrate them into your own product design, eliminating the certification cost.

There are companies that launch these modules along with the chips. They go through all the documentation, testing, and certification processes for you, helping you. For example, Fig. 2 shows a Wi-Fi BLE module. If you use this module to design any development board or IoT device, and don’t change much in the RF design, like adding an external antenna, and follow all the regulatory guidance from its datasheet, then you can avoid certification in the final design because the company already has taken care of this.

SPWF04 Wi-Fi module
Fig. 2: SPWF04 Wi-Fi module (Credit: https://blog.st.com)

These modules are created by manufacturers that have completed all necessary steps for obtaining FCC certification. By incorporating these modules into your design, you gain the advantage of complying with FCC regulations. However, this choice comes with limitations on antenna selection. But there is a way for that as well.

The original equipment manufacturer (OEM) responsible for these modules collaborates with an EMC testing laboratory to certify a set of antennas compatible with the transmitter. As a result, you, as the end user, must select an identical antenna to those used for FCC compliance. Most pre-certified modules are accompanied by an integration manual that outlines how to seamlessly incorporate the module into your existing design project.

The design trap

While selecting the components there can be an issue as most companies often launch these in series with slight differences. One slight mistake in design and selection can void your FCC and CE certification and cost a large penalty for your company.

Here is an example of one mistake most budding design engineers might unknowingly make.

ESP pre-certified modules with antenna and without antenna
Fig. 3: ESP pre-certified modules with antenna and without antenna

As you can see in Fig. 3, there are two components of ESP, and both are FCC and CE certified, both have the same specs, but there is a difference. If I use the first with an antenna in my design, then there’s a higher chance that my product design doesn’t need FCC certification. If I select the second chip for the design, then it has no onboard antenna; instead, it has the connector pin for that. If I add an onboard antenna to the design, the FCC certification of the overall design gets void, and I need to recertify the design for the whole board. But if I ship and sell the final design without the antenna and leave the user to get it separately and connect it as per their need, this can give relief to my design product from certification. However, the end customer who is going to use it needs to take care of certification for the design after adding the antenna in their deployed design. In such a case, if your customer is a company (B2B), then the company using your design product needs to recertify the product if they add the antenna to it.


Ashwini Kumar Sinha, an IoT and AI enthusiast, is a tech journalist at EFY

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