IEC Standards drive hi-tech advances

A handful of disruptive technologies supported by IEC standardization have emerged in recent years

By Morand Fachot

A number of new key technologies have entered the manufacturing world after years at the R&D stage. Among these, fibre optics, printed electronics and nanotechnologies are having a major and growing impact in many sectors. Three IEC TCs (Technical Committees) develop International Standards for these technologies, which often have overlapping domains of applications.

Flexible printed electronics
Flexible printed electronics

Fibre optics: moving beyond telecom

The principle of transmitting light through glass by total internal reflection has been known for a long time. Glass rods (straight or bent) were used for internal illumination in medical examination as early as the 1880s.

The first development of optical fibres for another purpose, communication, started in earnest in the 1960s with research into new types of glass resulting in the invention of the first commercially viable low-loss (i.e. one that absorbs very little light) hair-thin optical fibre by Corning Incorporated in 1970. This highly transparent fibre was capable of carrying 65 000 times more information (voice, data and video) than copper wire.

The parallel development of semiconductor lasers capable of converting an electrical signal into light and transmitting that light through fibre optic cables over long distances, and of optical receivers converting light into electricity at the receiving end, made possible the transmission of information through optic fibre cables. Today these form the backbone of the telecommunication and broadcast industries, allowing the transmission of vast volumes of content across the world right through to what is known as the "last mile" – that is, to nodes, buildings or homes.

Fibre optic systems can also be found in many other sectors such as IT and multimedia (for storage, printed boards and connections), medicine (for viewing and working inside the body with endoscopes and lasers), or for test and measurement purpose (where optic fibres are used to transmit light between devices or back to the sending device in loop tests).

Another fibre optics application that is gaining ground is the use of FOS (fibre optic sensors) to measure physical quantities and contribute to higher safety levels in many industrial sectors. Applications include the monitoring of pipelines, power transmission systems, structural monitoring of dams and civil engineering structures for early detection of local deterioration or structural damage.

IEC TC 86: Fibre optics, established in 1984, its three SCs (Subcommittees) and their WGs (Working Groups) are central to the development of the entire sector and all related industries as they prepare Standards, specifications and technical reports for fibre optic-based systems, subsystems, modules, devices and components.

As of October 2014 TC 86 had some 300 experts and had issued some 440 publications.

Ever so small

Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at the atomic scale, is seen as another key technology with the potential to change industrial sectors, economies and lives in the future in much the same way as the information technology revolution has done over the past two/three decades. It has been described as the resource for the next industrial revolution.

Companies and governments are investing heavily in nanotechnology and some commercial products are beginning to appear on the market. Despite this, many major applications for nanotechnology are still some 5-10 years away.

Some governments invest to ensure support for nanotechnology R&D in its early stages.

This is the case in the US where the President’s 2015 Budget provides over USD 1,5 billion for the NNI (National Nanotechnology Initiative), bringing the cumulative investment in this government initiative to nearly USD 21 billion since its inception in 2001. Recent investments in the NNI are aimed at "accelerating the transition from basic R&D to innovations that support national priorities, while maintaining a strong base of foundational research, to provide a pipeline for future nanotechnology-based innovations".

Large investments in nanotechnologies can also be observed elsewhere in the world, according to a joint NNI/OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) symposiumreport.

The nanotechnology sector covers a wide range of domains, many linked to electrotechnology. Among these are initiatives that aim to help overcome current performance barriers and substantially improve the collection, conversion and storage of solar energy.

The IEC commissioned a study on "Nanotechnology in the sectors of solar energy and energy storage" from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research ISI. The study found that there is a whole range of nanomaterials which will improve generation from solar sources and storage of renewable energies.

IEC TC 113: Nanotechnology standardization for electrical and electronic products and systems, created in 2006, has, as of October 2014 some 150 experts working in its two WG and numerous project and maintenance teams, develops International Standards for the technologies relevant to electrical and electronic products and systems in the field of nanotechnology.

The TC is developing and has already published International Standards for the use of nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes or graphene, as well as for nano-enabled electrotechnical products.

Printing circuits and other components

Printed technologies have also been expanding rapidly in recent years following the rising demand for relatively low-cost and small consumer electronic goods. Producing conventional electronics using silicon-based components is costly and presents some environmental issues, making it necessary to find other technologies.

Using additive manufacturing processes, some producers have started printing electronic parts and components on rigid or flexible substrates.

Printing techniques are often similar to those used in conventional printing, such as offset, screen printing, flexography or inkjet. Each of these techniques for printed electronics production has been developed over preceding decades using a wide choice of substrates and inks and resulting in the availability of an extensive and expanding range of products. They include printed circuit boards, flexible displays, PV (photovoltaic) cells, lights, memory, sensors, RFID (radio frequency identification) and NFC (near field communication) systems, to name but a few.

The demand for new kinds of electronic goods and the variety of low-cost products made possible by printing electronics and use of a range of printing techniques and materials point to the emergence of a very large market.

The research and consulting company IDTechEx expects the market to grow nearly 10-fold between 2013 and 2020 to exceed USD 55 billion.

Over 3 000 companies are currently active in the printed electronics domain, most of them in North America, East Asia and Europe.

Since the focus has been shifting in recent years from developing printed electronics technologies to manufacturing products, a need for standardization has emerged.

TC 119: Printed electronics, was established in October 2011 to meet this need. It currently has 13 Participating and 8 Observer countries. Its five WGs develop International Standards for terminology, materials, processes, equipment, products and health/safety/environment in the field of printed electronics.


An interesting feature of these advances technologies is a frequent overlapping of many of their domains of application and even of the technologies and processes they use. This is reflected in the web of their relationships and sometimes derives from their origin.

TC 86 and its SC 86B: Fibre optic interconnecting devices and passive components, have a liaison with TC 113. Also some techniques used in printed electronics can be applied in the production of fibre optic systems and components.

TC 119 has its origins in TC 113 AG (Advisory Group) 6: Printed electronics.

All of these innovative and advanced technologies, which depend to a great extent on IEC International Standards, will become more and more important in future manufacturing, making it possible to create new products and increase energy supply and storage from renewable sources, among many other benefits.

Fibre optic cables conveying high-speed test data across optical PCB connectors and an electro-optical midplane (Photo SPIE) Fibre optic cables conveying high-speed test data across optical PCB connectors and an electro-optical midplane (Photo SPIE)
Flexible printed electronics Flexible printed electronics
3D-printed nano-object 3D-printed nano-object