Conference Aims at Making Safer Products

Product safety testing and the effects of electromagnetic compatibility and radio frequencies focus of conference

6 August 2009

This year’s Sixth IEEE Symposium on Product Compliance Engineering will emphasize product safety testing and the effects of electromagnetic compatibility and radio frequencies on the functional safety of equipment and processes. To be held from 26 to 28 October in Toronto, this conference will be the broadest yet, with technical demonstrations of product safety test methods, plus multi-session tracks on product liability, forensic engineering, and medical devices. Sponsored by the IEEE Product Safety Engineering Society and the IEEE Electromagnetic Compatibility Society, the SPCE’s sessions will help fill an education gap in a field where practice is well ahead of academic training.

WORLDWIDE RULES Compliance with the ever growing number of international standards, laws, and regulations affecting product safety is vital, according to IEEE Member Gary Tornquist, the conference’s technical cochair. That’s why the conference covers compliance with product safety standards, laws, and regulations as well as broader issues.

“Regulations are becoming more complex, and global trade means we have to follow standards worldwide,” he says. “And the time for reacting to safety concerns has been reduced to only a few days in some cases.”

Furthermore, says Doug Nix, the general chair and an IEEE member, “Rules change over time, so you have to modify your product to maintain your safety certification status.”

Redesigns caused by the changing availability of parts due to obsolescence and shortages may call for recertification. And in many markets, especially outside the United States, “you cannot sell, distribute, or even show your product at a trade show without up-to-date certification,” Nix notes. Delays caused by regulatory problems like this can keep products off the market as effectively as can actual safety issues.

HARDLY ACADEMIC Product safety engineering is, for now, an academic orphan, rarely taught as a subject in its own right. Most people in the field learn not from academe but from on-the-job experience and mentoring by others, according to Nix. And because safety and compliance engineers tend to be isolated specialists within their own companies, they stand to learn more from their counterparts at other companies than from their coworkers, adds Tornquist.

What coverage there is in colleges is nothing like what a product safety engineer will find at the meeting, according to IEEE Life Senior Member Richard Nute, technical program consultant for the symposium. “The symposium is the only place where product safety engineers can learn both product safety basics and state-of-the-art advances,” he says.

And the SPCE presentations cover topics in depth. For example, in discussing insulation, factors that lead to its breakdown or deterioration will be covered, as well as how its behavior changes at high frequencies. “It’s not the same at hundreds of kilohertz as it is at 50 or 60 Hz,” Nute says. “This becomes important as we move to switching-mode power supplies.” Physiological reactions to the high frequencies and asymmetrical waveforms of such power supplies also are different, another safety issue.

But some of the best safety discussions can only take place one-on-one, says Tornquist. “For example, at the conference a few years ago I spoke with a competitor who had a product recalled for safety concerns. He wasn’t free to discuss it in detail, but even talking in generalities I learned things from him that I could apply to my company’s products.”

“I’ve been to all five SPCEs, and I haven’t found another conference where so many fundamental issues are discussed,” continues Tornquist. “To me, it’s the top event of the year.”

You can also search for the symposium on Twitter by using PSES2009.

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