A stretch of barbed-wired salvage yards and half-empty shopping centers in South Baltimore might seem an unlikely place for a British company to create a beachhead in a global industrial battle that affects virtually every appliance you touch.
But that's where British Standards Institution, one of the world's oldest and largest institutions in product testing and safety certification, is to announce today an agreement with MET Laboratories Inc. on West Patapsco Avenue.
MET Labs will become BSI's first test site in North America as it seeks to expand in the U.S. market, which has been practically the exclusive domain for a century of Chicago-based Underwriters Laboratories Inc.
"Several labs spoke with us, but MET was qualified for our needs. It was a natural fit," said Paul Brooks of BSI's North American division, based in Reston, Va. "Obviously, we're in competition with UL, so we need someone independent who could work with us."
Standards certification - sometimes called "conformity assessment" - is about as obscure an industry as any. But its global quilt of thousands of test labs, for-profit companies, nonprofits and agencies touches on virtually every product consumers use that could pose a hazard, electrical, environmental or otherwise.
Pick up that hair dryer, that coffee maker, that computer mouse, that power tool and turn it over: It's likely to bear the seal of UL or perhaps CE, the European equivalent required on goods sold in the European Union.
The inconspicuous industry gained rare headlines last month when the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, an oversight body in the United States, announced an extensive study into why the World Trade Center collapsed after the terrorist attacks a year ago.
The field has been in flux in recent years as global trade agreements enabled manufacturers to seek broader audiences for their products - and to desire a one-size-fits-all approach. The lack of common standards years ago, officials say, is one reason that overseas travelers need adapters to operate their electrical appliances.
"It's becoming a global business," said MET Labs President Robert Frier, whose father, Leonard, founded the Baltimore business in 1959. "You want to get your product tested once."
MET Labs has been a thorn in UL's side before. In the 1980s, it sued successfully to force the U.S. government to recognize labs besides UL in declaring products safe.
From its headquarters in the Brooklyn area, a maze of test chambers that the company has expanded over the years, MET engineers subject products to all manner of torture to see whether they hold up. The 130-employee company also has facilities in California, North Carolina and Hong Kong.
Some products are blasted with radiation in rooms lined with honeycomb material to absorb the rays. In another area, a probe in a mannequin's head simulates whether a human being might be harmed while using a cellular phone near a concentration of radio waves. In yet another space, a metal grid shakes beneath telecommunications equipment, under the gaze of a Nokia engineer, to test its ability to withstand an earthquake.
Product sizes vary
Elsewhere sits a wind machine that the company lent Baltimore last year to clear smoke billowing from a train tunnel fire. The size of the objects that get stress-tested vary greatly, from a computer chip to a 4,000-horsepower car crusher.
MET Labs reviews thousands of electrical devices for the defense, medical and telecommunications industries and, because of its antitrust suit victory, has its own seal to vouch for a device.
The company has struggled to expand into consumer goods, however, because many suppliers are most comfortable with the UL seal they recognize. Said Robert Frier, comparing his family's business to its competitor, "We're like 10-10-220, and they're like the telephone company."
That, he thinks, is a major reason that MET Labs' linkage with BSI could be worth millions of dollars to his company, which produced $15 million in revenue last year. While MET Labs tests products for BSI customers, BSI can provide other types of certification for MET clients, such as ISO registration.
ISO - derived from the Greek word isos, meaning "equal" - is a review that attests that a manufacturing process meets benchmarks for quality established by a global body, the Industrial Organization for Standardization.
Though hardly a household term, ISO has become a meaningful affirmation in the industrial world. It's not uncommon to see "ISO 9000 certified" promoted by manufacturers in their advertising or on their Web sites.
This year, BSI became the largest registrar for ISO 9000 in North America when it bought that business from accounting giant KPMG.
"In China, you see huge billboards with every company saying, 'We're getting ISO certification,'" said Yasemin Aksoy, a professor in operations management at Tulane University in New Orleans.
"When ISO began in Europe, U.S. companies were angry, thinking it was meant as a way to keep us out. Initially, there was a negative reaction, but people got over it really fast. When you're dealing with international suppliers, this becomes an important point."
"Products, systems, personnel - everything is being geared around an international standard and global relevance," said Stacy Leistner, a spokesman for the American National Standards Institute, a coordinating body in New York. "Within the past 10 or 15 years, this has really skyrocketed. Markets expanded, trade borders are coming down and the Internet has made global sales easier."
Coming out of shell
Partly because of the moves of BSI, UL and others to grab new turf, an insular industry is coming out of its shell. UL plans to open an exhibit at Disney World's Epcot Center this winter to promote its story.
With $565 million in revenue last year, not-for-profit UL has 23 affiliates around the world, 10 times more than it had a decade ago.
"We're always supportive of healthy competition. It helps get safer products into the marketplace and helps consumers," said Joe Bhatia, executive vice president and chief operating officer for UL International.
"Companies like UL, MET Labs and BSI have become more global. As more products come into a market from different sources, you need more levels of confidence."
BSI is best known in the United Kingdom for its Kitemark, a kite symbol formed from its initials that is akin to a Good Housekeeping seal of approval in its home base.
BSI's technicians have moved far beyond appliances: The body certifies, among other things, the reliability of condoms and whether bouncers at Britain's pubs have criminal pasts. BSI made a stir when it warned of the epidemic of "killer shoes," the spiked-heel and high-platform models favored by British celebrities such as the Spice Girls and model Naomi Campbell.
Manufacturing standards gained more attention in the Western world in the 1970s after Japanese automakers attracted consumers who were seeking efficient, dependable vehicles during the oil crisis. U.S. carmakers and policymakers were startled that a factory label formerly associated with junk - "Made in Japan" - had seemingly overnight become synonymous with quality. Japan's manufacturing standardization became a model for factory overhauls around the world.
"A big part of why cars don't rattle now as much as they used to is because we've tightened the tolerances to get things to fit together better," said Rebecca A. Morgan, an expert on the subject who heads a Cleveland company, Fulcrum Consulting Works Inc. "This globalization and consolidation is new and there's a strong movement toward both."
The BSI-MET Labs arrangement is the latest example.
"U.S. manufacturers didn't want to send products to the United Kingdom to be tested, so that was a tough nut to crack for BSI," said Kevin Harbarger, vice president of sales for MET Labs. "With this partnership, they become more competitive in this arena."