Is my new toaster safe to use? Can calls from my mobile phone be tapped or interfered with? How can I be sure my children’s toys and clothes don’t contain toxic materials?
With the growing complexity of modern economies, it seems impossible for individuals to know the answers to questions like these. So effective quality infrastructure now plays a crucial role in many aspects of our lives. Quality Infrastructure (QI) creates confidence.
QI – An infrastructure ensuring our safety every day
Quality infrastructure is the system put in place to ensure products and services are safe and of high quality. It covers everything from standardisation and conformity assessment (testing, inspection and certification) to accreditation, metrology and market surveillance.
Within this system, experts and QI institutions work together to protect people, health and the environment. These experts create the quality and safety that are important in many areas of our lives – in production processes, at the workplace and in the market. QI plays a vital role in business, innovation and trade – both nationally and across borders.
1. Standardisation – Benefiting business and society
Standards are voluntary documents which describe products, services, technologies or processes for common and repeated use. They set down compatibility, quality and safety criteria to ensure certain levels of uniformity and consistency for the benefit of the public. Standardisation was estimated to generate an annual national economic benefit in Germany of about 17 billion euros – constituting approx. 0.7 percent of Germany’s gross domestic product (GDP).
Standards are developed in a transparent, consensus-based process. All interested parties can participate and contribute their expertise. While the use of standards is voluntary in principle, regulators might choose to declare compliance as mandatory (thereby becoming a technical regulation).
Voluntary and consensus-based standards are beneficial to the public sector, businesses and society. They support the government with regulation and self-regulation by the industry. By improving product safety and quality, standards build trust between market participants and reduce transaction costs. International standards lower barriers to trade and help businesses create or enter new markets.
Standards support the spread of best practices and state-of-the-art procedures. Companies can build on the latest technologies and approaches and develop them further – this creates innovation. The positive economic effect of standardisation also goes beyond this knowledge spillover: for example, standards reduce the number of workplace accidents and increase overall quality of life.
German standardisation has a consistent international agenda. Standards provide a common technical language for trade partners throughout the world and ease value chains that cross borders. Drafting standards at the international level also reduces workload. Resources are used more efficiently when experts share their knowledge at the international level.
2. Conformity assessment – Ensuring reliability
Conformity assessment procedures demonstrate compliance with specified requirements. These requirements may be defined through legislation, technical regulation, standards or other means. Conformity assessment increases reliability and objectivity when it comes to the quality and safety of products and services.
Conformity assessment can be applied to products, services, systems, persons and bodies. It includes activities such as testing, inspection, certification and calibration. The need for conformity assessment and requirements may either be voluntary or demanded by law. In critical areas, the government selects the bodies authorised to carry out assessments.
For Germany’s internationalised and modern economy, conformity assessment plays an essential role not only in creating trust between market participants, but also in achieving public goals such as consumer safety and environmental protection.
Conformity assessment bodies can be private or run by the government. The German National Metrology Institute (Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt - PTB) conducts conformity assessment activities in the field of statutory metrology (e.g. on energy measurement equipment). The Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und ‑prüfung - BAM) undertakes conformity assessment activities in areas relevant to technical safety, including dangerous-goods containers (e. g. CASTOR containers), and explosive materials.
There are many private conformity assessment bodies in Germany including the group of Technical Inspection Agencies (TÜV) and the German Motor Vehicle Inspection Association (Deutsche Kraftfahrzeug-Überwachungs-Verein e.V - DEKRA).
3. Accreditation – Generating trust
Accreditation ensures that we can trust in conformity assessment. Accreditation bodies attest the technical competence of conformity assessment bodies and their objectivity. In short, accreditation bodies inspect those who inspect. Trust in conformity assessment is essential – no matter whether conformity assessment is required or not by law. Through a network of international agreements, accreditation also ensures that conformity assessments can be compared internationally. This means conformity assessment procedures are not duplicated unnecessarily, resulting in an easing of international trade. The European and German accreditation systems are therefore embedded internationally.
Conformity bodies in the EU require just one accreditation issued by their national accreditation body which is recognised across the single market. This saves time and costs and strengthens the principle: accredited once, accepted everywhere. The German Accreditation Body (Deutsche Akkreditierungsstelle GmbH - DAkkS) is the only accreditation body in Germany.
4. Metrology – To measure is to know
Does 1 kg weigh the same in one country as it does in another country? Is my watch showing the right time or will I be late for the meeting? Measurements are crucial, we depend on them if society and the economy are to function effectively. But equally important is the science of measurement and its applications: metrology.
Measurements are an essential element of quality assurance and lie at the heart of conformity assessment. Metrology ensures the accuracy of measurement results by comparing them with national standards and by calibrating measuring devices and procedures.
The international system of units (SI) was developed to ensure that measurement results are reliable. This system forms the basis for measurements in countries around the globe – including the EU – and supports international trade. Consequently, almost every country in the world has a metrology institute. These institutes are responsible for the realisation and dissemination of units (e.g. kilogram, metre, second) and cooperate internationally to compare their national measurement standards.
The Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) is Germany's national metrology institute and the highest authority for accurate and precise measurements. For more than 50 years, PTB has shared its expertise in international development cooperation. In this context, it is mainly funded by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (Bundesministerium für wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung - BMZ).
5. Market surveillance – guaranteeing safety and ensuring fair competition
Even with standards, accreditation and conformity assessment in place, it is possible for non-compliant products to be placed on the market. In such cases, market surveillance serves as a public control element. Market surveillance authorities identify and take action against products that fail to meet requirements in order to protect public interests. If they find non-compliant products, they may withdraw or recall them from the market and impose sanctions against the economic operators responsible. Moreover, they will inform other authorities and the public about dangerous products on the market.
Market surveillance is essential for the enforcement of product legislation. Because of this, it is a crucial part of a modern regulatory system. At the same time, market surveillance also creates a level playing field for economic operators and protects them against unfair competition.
Since 2021, the Regulation (EU) 2019/1020 strengthens the smooth functioning of the European Single Market. It amends and modernises key parts of the current regulatory framework for market surveillance in the EU.
The EU-wide market surveillance framework is implemented by the Member States. National authorities know their markets best and therefore have a better sense of how to identify non-compliant products. In Germany, the federal states are generally responsible for enforcing market surveillance. Each state organises its own market surveillance mechanism, taking into account regional circumstances such as the underlying economic structure and existing sectoral priorities.
In a few sectors, federal authorities are responsible for market surveillance – e.g. the German Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur - BNetzA) for EU legislation on radio equipment and electromagnetic compatibility. The German Market Surveillance Forum (Deutsches Marktüberwachungsforum - DMÜF) advises and supports the German Federal Government on matters of market surveillance and coordinates cross-sectoral market surveillance issues. In addition, certain coordinating tasks within the scope of the German Product Safety Act (ProdSG) have been transferred to the Central Authority for Safety of the German Federal States (Zentralstelle der Länder für Sicherheit - ZLS).