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.
The German Institute for Standardization (Deutsches Institut für Normung - DIN) and the German Commission for Electrical, Electronic & Information Technologies of DIN and VDE (Deutsche Kommission Elektrotechnik Elektronik Informationstechnik in DIN und VDE, DKE) are the recognised national standardisation bodies in Germany.
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 are mostly public but can also be private. 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).
In this context, PTB supports developing and emerging countries in the field of quality infrastructure. The primary objective of PTB's International Cooperation Department is to contribute to sustainable economic, social and ecological development.
5. Market surveillance and product safety – ensuring fair competition and safety
Market surveillance, as an element of public control, contributes significantly to safe products on the European internal market and a level playing field for economic actors. Market surveillance authorities randomly check products to see whether they meet specified requirements under European or German law. If this is not the case, the authorities take appropriate measures against the respective economic actors – in particular manufacturers, their authorised representatives, importers, distributors and fulfilment service providers. In the case of dangerous products, market surveillance authorities can order the withdrawal or recall as well as the sovereign warning against the product. Sanctions against the responsible actors are also possible. They also inform other authorities and the public about dangerous products on the market. Through these measures, market surveillance ensures the conformity of products and protects public interests.
The EU Regulation (EU) 2019/1020 ensures the smooth functioning of the European internal market since 2021. It modernised essential parts of the legal framework for market surveillance in the EU.
The EU market surveillance framework is implemented by the member states. In Germany, the market surveillance authorities of the 16 states are responsible for the implementation. In a few areas, federal authorities take over market surveillance. For example, the Federal Network Agency (BNetzA) is responsible for radio equipment. The German Market Surveillance Forum (DMÜF) of BMWK advises the Federal Government on market surveillance issues and coordinates cross-sectoral topics. The German Central Authority of the Federal States for Safety Engineering (ZLS) performs coordinating tasks on behalf of the market surveillance authorities of the 16 states within the framework of the Product Safety Act.