One night you dream of the most amazing product. You design it, prototype it, market-test it, start manufacturing it, and--obviously--you want people to have it. But hold on there! Before you can sell your product anywhere, you have to make sure that it conforms to the myriad rules and regulations of the country or countries where you want to market it.
The USA, Canada, the EU, Australia/New Zealand, China, Japan, ... they all have their own certification requirements. How do you know which regulations apply to your product, how to test it, and how to prove that your product conforms? That's where a certification lab comes in. This lab tests your product to make sure that everything in the box is up to code(s). We visited a lab like this yesterday.
I learned some important things.
First: you want a lab that takes intellectual property very seriously. This lab was one of the few places we've been where photos were absolutely forbidden, lest we capture an image of a yet-to-be released product. In one of the labs, there was a tightly-sealed metal container about the size of a breadbox that held a component about to be tested for wireless capabilities. When someone joked that it held the iPhone 6, none of the technicians smiled. In fact, they seemed to be in a hurry to get us out of the room... Since I could not take a photo, I have sketched the scene for you. You saw it here first!
Another thing I learned (even before we went there) is that there are a lot of standards and regulations -- FCC, EMC, CE, and ASTM, were some of the letters in the alphabet soup. Our product, Linkitz, is a toy with electronic components, so it has to comply with both electrical product standards and toy safety regulations. Even reading the regulations to find out which certifications are required for your product can be overwhelming.
The test lab we met with suggested that we work with a certification lab from very early in the design process. Because they are familiar with all the certifications required for a product like yours, you don't end up building something that is doomed to fail when you finally send it in for compliance testing. You can identify any issues and correct them before a single product rolls off the line.
They can also help you design a product that requires less testing. For example, if you have a choice between two wifi components and one is certified and the other is not, you can save money on testing by choosing the certified one, because then that aspect of your product does not need to be retested (as long as you use a reference design). A good lab can also help you design for testability.
The lab you choose needs be certified on all the tests you need to run. This information should be available on their website. You should also make sure that the lab is capable of running the tests you need. If not, they may have to send your product out to a third-party lab, or you might have to. It seems easiest to find a lab that does it all.
In addition to regulatory requirements, you might also want to do quality and reliability testing. Do you want to know how many times you can press the button on your device before it breaks? There's a machine for that. How about how long the battery lasts under simulated normal use? These are examples of quality and reliability tests that a lab may be able to provide for you.
Some of the tests performed on your product may be destructive, for example the hot wire and flame needle tests. For this reason, the lab requires three prototypes: two engineering prototypes and one "final" version. You don't get them back.
We left the test lab convinced that taking compliance testing into account early will help us bring our product to market more quickly and efficiently.