The product you manufacture has a strong bearing on the kind of regulatory environment you'll face. Toothpick manufacturers, for example, don't have a lot to worry about. If you make anything electrical, though, or anything used in construction or heavy industry, you may need to meet UL certification standards for the U.S. market or CE standards in the European market.
Underwriters Laboratories, now known simply as UL, dates back to the last few years of the 19th century when all things electrical were still new. This posed an interesting problem for the insurance companies of the day, who were uncertain how to gauge the relative safety of that whole new set of products and technologies. MIT-trained electrical engineer William Merrill Jr. suggested that the industry establish a lab to test products.
Over the course of the 20th century, UL 's testing and certification process provided the foundation and underlying research behind government safety standards at all levels. Depending on your product and the jurisdictions where you market it, or where you operate, UL certification might be mandatory. Even when it isn't obligatory, some of your clients may prefer UL-certified products, so it's an investment worth considering.
The details vary depending on your product and sector, but UL certification always follows a broadly similar process. First, you'll contact UL to request a quote for certification. The UL's quote will provide you with a list of its requirements, including product information and samples, and the corresponding fees. If you agree to those terms, you'll pay a deposit and sign service agreements – if applicable – and then submit all of the requested samples and information.
The UL will test your product for compliance with its applicable standards, then create a report based on the test results and give you a notice of completion. Assuming your product has passed, you'll create or purchase appropriate UL marks, face a final inspection at your manufacturing locations and then receive UL's authorization to use the certification mark.
If UL certification is something you know you'll need, or plan on getting from the start, the earlier you get UL involved, the easier the process will be. As the UL's own site points out, designing your product to meet its standards from the ground up is easier than revising it afterward. You may also opt to have a third-party Nationally Recognized Testing Laboratory test and verify your product, rather than the UL itself.
There's a different process if you want to sell your product into the European Union, or any of the countries outside the EU that adhere to its standards. You'll have to be CE listed, meaning your product complies with the EU's Conformité Européenne standards and displays the CE mark.
The CE process doesn't require third-party testing for most products, but instead puts the burden on you to demonstrate that your product meets European standards. First, you'd check the EU's site for any harmonized, Europe-wide standards applicable to your product, then search out any directives that apply specifically to your product or industry. Finally, you'd check the EU's NANDO database to determine whether there's a regulatory body – a "notified body" in EU-speak – that must assess your product's compliance.
Once you're clear on the EU's requirements for your product, you'll test it and compile a technical dossier verifying that it meets those requirements. You'll draw up and sign an EU Declaration of Conformity for each of your products, and apply a CE mark that meets EU standards. If your product required the involvement of a notified body, that body's identification number must appear on your label.
The two certification standards and processes are rather different in their focus. UL certification was created by insurers and verifies the safety of specific individual products. CE compliance was drawn up by bureaucrats and focuses on documentation of the process. Each approach works, within its parameters.
Ultimately, the whole question of UL/CE certification comes down to where you plan to do business. If your products will be used within the US, UL certification can be useful and may be mandatory. If you plan to export to the EU, CE marking may be mandatory and some clients may give weight to UL certification as well.
Opting for either, or both, may make sense depending on your market and the nature of your product.