Safety is of the utmost importance with electronic devices. One of the standardizing bodies that regulate safety in the electrical engineering world is the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC), which specifically establishes international criteria for all electrical and electronic technology.
The latest iteration of standards out of IEC—IEC 62368-1—which is set for ratification before the end of December 2020, has unique ramifications for designers in certain disciplines. How exactly are expectations changing? And what do they mean for future power supply development?
How Does IEC 62368-1 Differ From Its Predecessors?
Previous IEC standards were highly product-focused in the sense that they governed components and power supplies for future-proofing. Older versions like IEC 60950-1 and IEC 60065 were described as “prescriptive.” While their focus was product safety, the breakneck pace of electronic development has made it difficult to regulate the multiplicity of new and diverse designs.
A flowchart detailing the thought processes behind the IEC 62368-1 standard. Image used courtesy of In Compliance
Regulators have started to rethink how OEMs should improve product safety—after all, our devices are becoming increasingly complex, capable, and portable. Heavy usage and physical proximity shouldn’t pose threats to human well-being. As such, IEC 62368-1 is now considered a “hazard-based” standard.
Experts have recognized energy as a chief consideration in product design. Energy sources are sometimes benign, and thus innately safe. However, hazardous energy sources must now be contained via built-in safeguards.
New Categories and Procedures
It’s up to engineers to verify the effectiveness of these safeguards—ultimately preventing hazardous energy transfer to the human body. This is critical when working with batteries, electrical connections, and high-voltage power sources. Hazards are categorized as follows:
- Thermal (including burn risks and ignition)
The IEC has defined energy levels that may cause fires. Image used courtesy of CUI
The new IEC standard acknowledges future advancements in power supplies. As those innovations occur, IEC 62368-1 requires engineers to:
- Identify any energy sources
- Assign those energy sources to Class 1, 2, or 3
- Pinpoint existing safeguards
- Determine the effectiveness of said safeguards
Outline of how IEC classifies energy sources. Image used courtesy of CUI
A Class 1 source might be detectable without pain to users. Class 2 energy causes pain upon exposure, and Class 3 sources cause injury when a transfer mechanism is present.
IEC 62368-1 is not two things: a simple sum of its preceding standards, nor a risk-based standard. Product risk analysis isn’t required under the new guidelines. IEC’s architects are quick to point out that IEC 62368-1 is a rewrite of existing rules—constituting a complete philosophical shift.
Who Is Affected by the IEC Standard Change?
Engineers and product designers have until December 20th, 2020 to adapt to the new standard. Manufacturers have the remaining time to carry out testing and design—especially if internal product hazards are defined as Class 2 or 3. These hazard tiers require additional safeguards between the energy source and body. All products launching under the new standard must meet this deadline.
IEC 62368-1 is an international standard, going into effect within both the European Union and the United States. The numbered standard is preceded by EN and UL in these regions, respectively.
IEC 62368-1 code in the US and other countries’ analogous standards. Image used courtesy of CUI
The new standard has been in the works since 1995. The European Computer Manufacturer’s Association (ECMA) spearheaded the creation of hazard-based standards in the decades following, later introducing ECMA 287. IEC 62368-1 encompasses all products previously covered under IEC 60950-1 and IEC 60065—while opening the door for wider product inclusion.
Because the guidelines are energy-based, manufacturers are free to explore new hardware technologies relatively unabated.
Defining the Future of Safety
While regulations are usually restrictive for designers, IEC’s new direction will open the floodgates somewhat for designers. With energy safety being the limiting factor, component innovation will occur with greater velocity.
That said, OEMs will have to revamp their testing procedures in short order. This will take time and money to nail down properly. The first companies to adapt to these standards will be able to hit the product market first—gaining a competitive advantage over their peers.
What will these needed safeguards look like? Insulation, shielding, fire-proofing, and protective earthing will continue to be mainstays within our electronics. As energy sources evolve, so too will these safeguards. These standards may also be more robust depending on the user—who is now defined as an Ordinary Person, Instructed Person, or Skilled Person.
The general idea is that trained individuals will be better equipped to avoid injury. IEC 62368-1 aims to boost consumer and commercial safety across the board, which is something all users can appreciate.