100 years of passion and dedication in electricity and electronics

31 January 2008
100 years of passion and dedication in electricity and electronics

Who decides that the stop button on your iPod should be represented by a square, while the pause button should be two vertical lines? Why are AA batteries and CDs the same all over the world?

The answer lies in Geneva, which has been home to the world’s leading organization for electrical and electronic standards for more than 50 years, but 50 years is only half the story. Founded in London in 1906, the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) is the international organization that prepares and publishes International Standards for all electrical, electronic and related technologies.

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, the IEC counts some 80 staff members in Central Office in Geneva. It also has two regional offices, one in Massachusetts, USA, and the other in Singapore. A third office is likely to open in Latin America in the near future.

According to IEC General Secretary Aharon Amit: "While our100th anniversary offers us a good opportunity to reflect and celebrate past accomplishments, 2006 also marks 100 years of service to the electrical and electronic industries, to member countries and to society. Such an anniversary is a milestone, but the IEC isn’t stopping there nor even slowing down. As in all other years, we will be launching new projects and publishing new International Standards while aiming to consolidate past successes and achieve new goals."

"Geneva has been home to the IEC since 1948 and while our view and our impact are global, it’s from here that we organize it all. Geneva has been very good to us over the decades and we intend to be celebrating our 200th anniversary here in 2106."

Why are International Standards so important?

The main objectives of the IEC are to promote international co-operation on all questions of electrotechnical standardization and related matters, such as the assessment of conformity to standards. IEC’s International Standards also facilitate world commerce by removing technical barriers to the exchange of goods and services, leading to new markets and economic growth. IEC’s standards are thus vital as they also represent the core of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), whose 140-plus central government members explicitly recognize that International Standards notably play a critical role in improving industrial efficiency.

Areas covered by IEC standards include all electrotechnologies, including electronics, magnetics and electromagnetics, electroacoustics, multimedia, telecommunication, energy production and distribution as well as associated general disciplines such as terminology and symbols, electromagnetic compatibility, safety and the environment.

For industries that manufacture products and services that fall within the fields covered by the organization, the benefits of using its standards include greater product and service quality, more interoperability, better production and delivery. End-users of such products also gain. In addition, IEC standards, serve as a basis for national and regional standardization and as references when drafting international tenders and contracts. At the same time, IEC standards aim to encourage and improve quality of life by contributing to safety, human health and the protection of the environment.

At present, some 175 technical committees and subcommittees, as well as some 700
project or maintenance teams carry out the work of the organization. These committees may for example prepare technical documents on specific subjects within their respective areas, which are then submitted to IEC members or National Committees (NCs) who decide by vote whether these become International Standards. In total, some 7 000 experts worldwide participate in the technical work of the IEC. To improve efficiency and reduce overall costs, the distribution of documents for standards production is 100% electronic.

There are two possible forms of participation in IEC work. Full membership enables countries to participate fully in international standardization activities. Associate membership enables those countries with less financial resources to still take part in some of IEC’s work (limited participation).

Sixty-five countries from all parts of the world, and who represent all the major trading nations, take part in the IEC’s standardization’s activities. These play a key role in all decision-making instances of the Commission. For the IEC, this enables the widest degree of consensus on standardization work to be reached at an international level. It is then up to members to align their policies accordingly in their countries.

IEC members, whose role is also to encourage new companies and new industries to get involved, usually comprise representatives of: "manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, vendors; "governmental agencies (all levels); "professional societies, trade associations; "consumers, end-users; "standards developers.

To respond to WTO’s call for more inclusiveness, an Affiliate Country Programme (ACP) was created in 2002, which means a growing number of industrializing countries also comprise the IEC family. The programme is aimed at all newly-industrializing countries around the world and currently has 69 participants. Though participation in the ACP is not a form of IEC membership, it offers a means of participation in, and use of, IEC standards without incurring onerous costs.

For the IEC, newly-industrializing economies stand to gain most by focusing on the basics to help establish solid foundations for the future and its conformity assessment systems can help with procurement by simplifying regulatory control of imports and exports without compromising quality. The programme is also considered as a first step towards becoming a full IEC member.

Collaboration with international and regional partners

Harmonizing standards being a key strategic factor, the IEC works closely with other international bodies and regional standardization organizations. These include WTO, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), the International Telecommunication (ITU), the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), the World Health Organization, CENELEC, the International Maritime Organization and the Council for Harmonization of Electrotechnical Standards of the Nations of the Americas (CANENA). To harmonize work in common areas, the "World Standards Cooperation" between IEC, ISO and the ITU strengthens and advances the voluntary consensus-based international standards system and has become truly representative of the entire international standardization system embodied in the three organizations.
More constructive work is expected in the future from these three equal partners with the primary goal of always serving their market. In addition, the IEC wishes to maintain its commitment to cooperation with all its international standards partners whenever it is in the common interest and benefit of both the organizations’ communities.

The organization also encourages industrializing nations to share in the benefits of joining in its work and liaises closely with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), the World Bank and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Prepared for increasing complex technology

With rapid technological changes and shortened
product life-cycles, the IEC recognizes the need to develop International Standards based on market demand. To that end, the organization is placing great effort on reducing the average development time for its standards and increasing output while maintaining quality. One way of addressing this important need has been the organization’s use of information technology tools and streamlined processes which has made things much more efficient for its experts.

Also, as technology becomes more complex, users and consumers of a variety of electrical and electronic products are becoming more aware of their dependence on products whose design and construction they may not understand. This is a good example of how IEC’s conformity assessment systems try to offer consumers that needed reassurance that a product is reliable and that it will meet expectations in terms of performance, safety, durability and other criteria. For industry, such systems contribute to removing significant delays and costs of multiple testing and approval procedures, enabling business to be conducted faster while still marketing reliable products.

As the market is very demanding, with expectations of new products from the IEC, the organization draws on its track record as an innovator in bringing such products to the market, an example being online databases such as IEC 60417 for graphical symbols. The icons for fast-forward, stop and for pause that you find on audio systems and iPods are but three well-known examples that come from this database. Putting it online gives product developers much quicker access to the information they need to do their jobs.

This characteristic of the IEC is also reflected outside its offices as it has become known in the standardization community as an innovator for standardization. For example IEC’s use of an electronic-only working environment and its streamlined processes for developing standards along with decentralized systems have empowered the organization’s members and community of experts to better meet market needs.

Celebrating an electric century

To mark the organization’s centenary, several events are being organized locally and abroad. In Geneva, residents are invited to explore an interactive exhibition designed in partnership with the Services Industriels de Gen?ve (SIG) from May 16 to June 10, 2006 on the Pont de la Machine. The exhibition, which will survey IEC’s work together with future projects, is to be inaugurated on May 16 in presence of federal, cantonal, municipal authorities and other representatives from the public sector such as SIG and Electrosuisse.

A special IEC Centenary Challenge competition for papers was launched in October 2005 in partnership with IEE (the largest professional engineering society in Europe), IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), VDE (Germany’s Association for Electrical, Electronic &Information Technologies), and in association with The Economist.

Particularly intended for the academic world, the contest aims to highlight the economic, business and social impact of International Standards. Approved papers will be judged by a panel of distinguished leaders from business, academia, government and the media. Prizes of USD 15 000, USD 5 000 and USD 2 000 are to be given to the first, second and third places, respectively. The deadline for papers is 31 May, 2006 (more information is available at:www.iecchallenge.org).