Something's in the Air: Is it Your Success?
Guidelines for Saving Time and Money with
Wireless Implementations

by Gordon Hurst

The something that's in the air is the increasing use of wireless technology. It's used not only for communications, but also for the transport of data from new products used in many industries. If your company is planning to embed a wireless module into your product, what do you need to know to guarantee success? This article addresses the compliance issues that come into play with wireless integration. Read further to learn from one manufacturer's experience and find a checklist of questions for accelerating your release of a fully compliant, wireless-enabled product.

Cords no longer are the ties that bind. We're untethered when we speak on phones; when we compute; when we text message to friends and colleagues; when we touch base with our kids; when we take and share pictures. These things are now expected. And, expectations are mounting that we be similarly untethered when we control, count, diagnose, inventory, locate, measure, monitor, operate, scan, secure, ticket, track. New verbs are arriving in quick succession, and the list seems endless. Wireless is definitely in the air.

As an executive sitting in the untethered environment of a local Starbuck's, perhaps you ponder advancing your company's products into this world without wires. "Imagine how convenient it will be for our customers…. Imagine how this will differentiate our product…add capabilities…extend the product potential….Imagine." And, with a click, you send this idea to your management team, launching a series of questions and actions: "What will this take?" "What will it cost?" "If we do this, when will the product go to market?" "What revenues can it generate?" "When will we realize return on investment?" "What other products might this affect as we develop extended or new product lines?"

Unless your company has been engaged in legacy wireless developments, like narrowband to broadband microwave radios or cellular telephones, incorporation of wireless into your products requires new research, discovery and careful planning. This is especially true if your company is small or new, as staff time may not be available for in-depth research of radio frequency standards and product compliance details. The upside, of course, is the reward of revenue generation and development of a product reputation that will keep your name in front of customers for a long time to come. The addition of wireless to your products can add value over time, increasing product sales and extending the product life in the marketplace. And so, finding ways to move quickly down the path of wireless compliance issues is important to your success.

Two resources can prove key to an accelerated wireless implementation:

  1. Off-the-shelf modules

  2. Wireless compliance consultation

Off-the-shelf modules

Because wireless as a technology is growing in the range of its applications, there are increasing numbers of "off-the-shelf" RF modules that can be incorporated into products. This has simplified the staffing needed for wireless integration, as your company may not need an RF engineering group as part of your general development team. The off-the-shelf RF modules will likely carry a compliance certification, creating the potential for a "plug and play" engineering implementation. Be aware, however, that the certification very likely pertains to a specific use and to a specific configuration, including the antenna. Modified uses can play counterpoint to the ease of acquiring the wireless module, and new wireless compliance issues may need to be addressed.

Wireless Compliance Consulting

Products that emit RF signals must be tested to certify compliance with standards. The American Association for Laboratory Accreditation (A2LA) in the U.S. and the United Kingdom Accreditation Services (UKAS) in the U.K. are two organizations that accredit labs for RF testing through rigorous on-site assessments of the lab's equipment, procedures and overall competence. The scope of a lab's accreditation identifies the standards to which a lab can test. Some wireless laboratories additionally provide consulting services to interpret standards, determine specific country requirements if standards vary from country to country, and, in some cases, will completely manage wireless compliance issues for your company, if desired. A qualified wireless compliance consulting resource can help your company navigate safely around hidden pitfalls that can exist in the path to compliance.

When the Road Gets Rough

Bright Star Engineering in Woburn, Massachusetts, is one company with a story to tell.

A Case Study

Chapter One - Progress as Usual

Already a leading developer of superior components for automotive diagnostic tools, Bright Star wanted to integrate wireless capability into its onboard vehicle system that is triggered automatically or manually to record data whenever an engine performance or other vehicle problem occurs. Once a problem is recorded, an authorized repair facility downloads the data via Ethernet to expedite diagnosis and repair. Adding wireless capability to this tool would enable a technician to use a handheld unit to pull the data and read the information without being tethered via a hardwired Ethernet connection.

The implementation seemed straightforward. Bright Star defined the wireless module selection criteria, and the company researched and analyzed the tradeoffs of several available wireless cards. Simultaneously the company selected an antenna for the application and listed the ability to work with this antenna as part of the tradeoff criteria. Aware that wireless compliance was a requirement, another selection factor was the ability to implement an already certified wireless module.

The process employed was a sound, proven approach in engineering design and implementation practices. The wireless module Bright Star selected satisfied all the criteria. Implementation became a matter of business negotiations.

A Case Study

Chapter Two - New Discoveries

Bright Star continued with its implementation procedures. The product was completed, and the company began manufacturing the wireless-enabled diagnostic tool in quantity.

"At this point, we learned that we needed to know more," said Roy Nachowitz, Bright Star Engineering's Director of Operations. "We learned that the wireless card we had selected was certified, but not for the precise use we intended. While we had the manufacturer's statement that we could use the FCC certification the product had, we learned we had to apply for new certifications after our application was developed. We also learned that different countries where this product was intended to be used had different certification requirements that we needed to address."

The certification granted to the off-the-shelf wireless module that Bright Star had selected was for a specific output power and antenna. It also was approved for certain radio frequency (RF) exposure limits calculated as a function of distance from the antenna. Because the technician using the Bright Star wireless product could pick up the unit, the Bright Star application introduced new RF exposure requirements. This introduced the potential need for additional specific-absorption-rate (SAR) testing.

What Bright Star stumbled into was a hidden pot hole in their road to product compliance - something that differs from module compliance. Indeed, a wireless module's compliance certification is tightly wound around a set of restrictions and limitations. While this is not unlike certifications for wireless use across the board, it gets tricky when you think you have found a "plug and play" wireless capability for a straightforward integration into your end product design.

Several warning signs can apply. First of all, it is important to know that only North America provides certifications of wireless modules in the unlicensed frequency bands. Module certification is not available for uses outside the U.S. or Canada. In addition, the wireless module manufacturer is responsible for compliance of the module in the module's final configuration, which must include buffered modulation/data inputs, the power supply regulation and a specific antenna. If the manufacturer of the end product does not follow the instructions regarding antenna configuration or other aspects of the module's final configuration, as provided in the original description of the module, it no longer will be considered certified. Finally, even though a wireless module may have certification, it is still possible that some other form of authorization or testing maybe required for the end product. This proved to be the case for Bright Star.

A Case Study

Chapter Three - Thrash to Resolution

"We got farther and farther into the process because we didn't know exactly what to do. Simultaneously, we had 5,000 manufactured units that were undeliverable into an industry where delays in the release of new models of cars can be measured in thousands of dollars per minute."

The search for the right resource to help find a solution bounced across borders, shores and state lines. Finally, the company found a reliable, knowledgeable resource with whom they could work to untangle issues, guide the process going forward, complete testing, and assist with the global compliance certifications. The total delay in shipments was about 3 weeks in length, and revenues from this product were delayed for a good month.

"Luckily, for us, good relationships with both our suppliers and our customers smoothed negotiations caused by the delays. We were fortunate that we are an established and respected company in the industry and we could sustain business while we focused internal efforts on getting the problems fixed."

Guiding Successful Wireless Integration

The Bright Star case study is just one real-life example of a company's dealing with issues that surround the integration of a wireless module - an integration that differs from the incorporation of any other component or submodule in a product development process. The impact on a smaller or younger company could have been more substantial - both in the length of the delays as a smaller staff sought answers, and in the company's ability to absorb the costs associated with added effort.

Bright Star found that they could have used more guidance up front. The following checklist of questions might have prevented some of their problems.

General Checklist

  • Have you included wireless compliance in your design plans?

  • Is wireless compliance listed in your total cost of ownership?

  • Have you included a wireless compliance plan as part of the product life cycle maintenance plan?

  • Will SAR testing be a requirement?

  • Do you have a statement of work for wireless compliance of the product in each country in which it will be sold?

  • Do you have a qualified resource to be your compliance partner for standards interpretation, product testing, and certification assistance?

Module Selection

  • Is the manufacturer a reliable company?

  • Is the manufacturer responsive to questions, when needed? Is information clear?

  • Does the module have its own FCC ID marking?

  • Have you received the module certification documentation?

  • What antennas are within the scope of the certification?

  • What output power is called out in the certification?

  • What range of frequencies does the product transmit?

  • Does the wireless module approval differ in any way from the intended use of your product?

  • Is there a software driver available for testing purposes?

Conclusion

Because of the need to comply with varying country standards that regulate RF emissions and wireless uses, integration of wireless modules into products is not as straightforward as the integration of other types of modules during product development. Nonetheless, compliance issues should never deter new wireless developments that offer your company elevated product sales, product differentiation and a commanding competitive advantage. Success, especially for smaller companies where wireless is not a core technology, is a matter of careful planning and partnering.

Who You Gonna Call?

In addition to following guidelines such as those presented here, alliance with knowledgeable resources for standards interpretation, product testing, and certification support will further reduce development time and costs and pave the way to success in the untethered world. While not all laboratories who test are qualified compliancebusters, there are capable partners that can guide you through the maze of issues for product versus module compliance, and differing country requirements.

Search "wireless compliance" on the Internet, and look for standards information, accreditation, and a reputation for competence.


Gordon Hurst, BSc, CEng, MIEE, is the Founder, President, and CEO of MiCOM Labs, Inc., an accredited wireless compliance consulting and testing laboratory headquartered in Pleasanton, California. He has more than 15 years in wireless product development and global regulatory compliance management. He previously was General Manager of StratestLabs and Director of Regulatory Compliance for Stratex Networks, Inc. (formerly Digital Microwave Corporation). He has served on the ETSI Technical Bodies in developing wireless standards and on the U.S. Fixed Wireless Communications Coalition (FWCC).

About MiCOM Labs
Headquartered in Pleasanton, Calif., MiCOM Labs (www.micomlabs.com) provides wireless compliance consulting services and RF and EMC testing for a broad range of wireless products, including security, industrial, scientific and medical devices; wireless networking and information technology equipment; WiMAX and microwave radios; and ultra-wideband (UWB) and radio frequency identification devices (RFID). Product testing is conducted to all available international standards. Global acceptance of MiCOM Labs' ISO/IEC 17025-accredited test reports enables clients to achieve global certifications and expedite wireless product releases into markets around the world.

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Copyright 2006 by Gordon Hurst. All rights reserved.

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