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Digitisation and the Future of Accredited Conformity Assessment

Jeff Ruddle
Strategic Development Director, UKAS

The Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) is well underway. Whilst the future of conformity assessment looks relatively secure as a concept, the sector is falling behind other industries on the digital adoption curve. It is up to the sector to respond to evolving technologies and customer expectations if the acceptance and status of conformity assessment are to be maintained.

Far from resting on its laurels, the industry is already using the lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic to accelerate existing digitisation programmes, such as the introduction of remote and/or blended assessments. But these should be considered as only the first steps on the digitalisation journey. More significant strides in both approach and application are needed to first catch and then keep pace with the rest of the working world.

Establishing Source and Structure

At the moment too much conformity assessment is evidenced in paperwork that is kept in silos and hidden behind layers. Digitising and collating this information in a secure, recognised source allows the relevant parties to check credentials anywhere and at any time. It speeds up the verification process, creates a chain of traceability and helps identify potential areas for concern. Crucially, digitisation hands control over certificates back to the issuing bodies, helping to prevent fraud and allowing status and information to be easily updated.

Once the need for digitalisation is recognised, attention turns to how best to achieve this. Whilst a singular global conformity assessment database may appear to be the obvious theoretical solution, in reality this is not a viable option as it would be difficult to agree ownership and all the parameters. Instead a network of separate specialist databases is the more practical solution, as it avoids these issues whilst delivering all the benefits of an authoritative source. Several countries are already working in this area and looking at how existing unique product identification tags could be linked to the conformity assessment performed on them.

A Question of Standards

In addition to striking a balance between client confidentiality and ‘the greater good’, there are also considerations around participation criteria that need to be resolved. For example, how do you assure high standards of quality if you include non-accredited conformity assessment? Conversely, would the network be fit for purpose if you closed it off to non-accredited conformity assessment?

Similarly, the next logical area to address is the standards that should be applied to the digitalisation process itself. Whilst there are existing standards around unique identifiers, they are not directly applicable to conformity assessment activity. Additionally, dealing with multiple standards across multiple industries and jurisdictions can be a time consuming and resource intensive process, as we’ve seen with cybersecurity in recent years. This is an area the conformity assessment industry is starting to examine, with the overriding aim of creating a common process based on one set of agreed, internationally recognised standards.

To ensure universal buy-in amongst all parties it’s perhaps better if market forces drive which information needs to be digitised and to what standard(s). This will make both the digitisation and format of certain information a practical requirement of doing business, in turn, driving demand for accredited conformity assessment services in those areas. These and many other considerations are something the conformity assessment industry must address in collaboration with those that rely on its services. Doing so will ensure that accredited conformity assessment continues to play a vital role in the broader economic ecosystem; one that regardless of client, industry or country supports frictionless trade across international borders and is concerned with health, safety, quality and fitness for purpose.

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