International Standards and Conformity Assessment for all electrical, electronic and related technologies

July 2011


Ubiquitous sensors

Versatility in a smart world

By Janette Kothe

One of the three IEC Young Professional Leaders

As one of the three 2010 Young Professional Leaders, I am a sensor developer carrying out research on optical biosensors for industrial applications in a German academic institution, the Technical University of Dresden. Being able to write about my area of work provides me with the opportunity of underlining some of the consequences that standardization has had on this emerging field. In this respect, I've chosen to concentrate on various major trends and the impact standardization has had not only on their development, but on the community at large.

Sensors make systems smart

There are lots of examples of sensor use. Applications range from the Smart Grid to biomedical technologies. Essentially, anywhere you have a system with added intelligence you're likely to find a sensor. Sensors are tremendously versatile tools that open up all sorts of possibilities. You can create new functionality, either by providing new information about a process or perhaps even by solving measurement tasks that previously could not be achieved.


There are a tremendous number of biosensor applications where procedures have not yet been integrated into a standard either because they are so complex that they are over-sophisticated for practical use or because they are not really market-relevant. As a developer, if you want to establish a new principle, it's important to take part in the standardization process. It provides credibility and helps convince all stakeholders of the worth of your approach as well as establishing your methodology.

Janette Kothe,
IEC Young Professional Leader

Biosensors are currently at the stage of emerging from laboratory development and taking their place in various applications in the field. It's an important and exciting moment for any researcher.

Function integration

The smarter your system, the greater the need to integrate sensor and actor functions in a single component. That is the idea behind mechatronics.


The term mechatronics is used to imply a multidisciplinary field that consists of a combination of branches of engineering: mechanical, electronic, computer, software, control, and systems design. It avoids having to split engineering into separate disciplines. Originally, the word mechatronics simply emanated from a combination of the words mechanics and electronics. However, as technical systems have become increasingly complex, the word has expanded in sense to include further technical areas. Mechatronics enables new technologies to be introduced, for example in the case of miniaturization.


In each system, very different fields of expertise come together. This generates a need for harmonized standards which requires us to monitor and address technological developments in the context of International Standards. We also need to consider the various liaisons that come into being within each specific area.

Standards provide the measurements

The need to solve certain measurement tasks and the consequent developing of relevant sensor interfaces are both driven by standards. The implication is that you can add value to a scientific development by carrying it out in conformance with existing standards that make it compatible with other developments. If the necessary rules do not yet exist, new standardization work has to be undertaken.


There is a tremendous number of biosensor applications where procedures have not yet been integrated into a standard either because they are so complex that they are over-sophisticated for practical use or because they are not really market-relevant. As a developer, if you want to establish a new principle, it's important to take part in the standardization process. It provides credibility and helps convince all stakeholders of the worth of your approach as well as establishing your methodology.

Interdisciplinarity does not necessarily imply common language…

Biosensors are a pretty good example of how interdisciplinary today’s sensor research is. However, I have learned that various scientific disciplines think quite differently. There is a whole new group of experts – for example, biologists involved in biosensor research – who through their work have come into contact with the world of electrotechnical standardization for the very first time. They need to be convinced of the importance of becoming experts and taking part in the standardization process.

Convincing new people, who have significantly different backgrounds, of the usefulness of standards is a huge task.

… but it does mean taking a system approach

For any sensor developer, the concept of the IEC system approach is a "natural way of thinking". A sensor is a component that can always be used in a variety of systems. So this approach contributes to our way of working. Take biosensors, for example: while they still need a common definition and assessment, the standardization of their application has to be developed by several different committees.


A sensor that is going to be used in a biotechnological process may look totally different to the one that will be applied in a diagnostics role. Both may have the same technological base which can be addressed by a certain group of experts. But you will need experts with a process automation background for one application, and ones with biomedical expertise for the other one.

Standardization as a strategic tool

Standardization needs to be seen and accepted as a strategic tool. And, where IP (Intellectual Property) and technology marketing are already included in students' syllabuses, it's necessary to raise awareness about standardization – particularly the importance and functionality – among the next generation of engineers and scientists by providing them with lectures and workshops on how standardization works. Equally, if we want to find it addressed in business plans and policy statements, we will have to promote this instrument to business administrators and politicians too.

Attracting new experts

Convincing new people of our work-flow is not our only task. There is also the challenge of attracting a new generation of experts. I am convinced that this is not all about speed: companies and people who are committed to the concept of standardization will also be more willing to participate in providing new resources. One of the ways of attracting new experts is by providing them with modern easy-to-use tools and communication strategies to make the standardization process as immediate and efficient as possible. I believe that the IEC, in being open to testing new instruments, will succeed in this. People who are new to the community are certain to appreciate an organization that offers the latest technologies available in the field.

Experts new to the field of electrotechnology

Another aspect to take into consideration is that of networking. There are all sorts of networks of experts working in the various scientific communities. Some of them are already involved in the standardization process. Many are not yet associated. These two groups need to be drawn together and expanded. Both provide an independent platform for discussion; both prepare and deal with emerging technologies. Both share the need to convince their members of the value of their network and have to attract new members to maintain their own importance and their involvement in whatever their innovation process.

Drawing closer parallels between scientists and standardization experts

On a personal level I should like to use the opportunity I have as a Young Professional Leader to call on some of my peers who are not yet involved in standardization. In calling out to those people who are working in new areas of research and development and getting them involved in the standardization process we can generate synergies that are profitable both for them and for International Standardization. In getting others involved, we can learn from each other – on the one hand about emerging technologies that may soon come into the focus of standardization and on the other hand about the important role of technical rules that make new technologies safe and accessible to all.


  • Janette KotheJanette Kothe is one of three 2010 Young Professional Leaders.
  • Look aheadThe succession planning brochure calls on IEC National Committees to look ahead.
  • Genetically modified yeast cellsA biosensor: Genetically modified yeast cells show a dependent fluorescence when they detect arsenic in anaqueous solution. The challenge is to integrate this class of new transducers into established sensor architectures and interfaces.


About the Young Professionals

The IEC Young Professionals' Programme brings together young technical, managerial and engineering professionals in their twenties and mid-thirties. Selected participants will already be familiar with the world of standardization and CA (Conformity Assessment), either because they develop or work with standards.

Through the programme, participants are given the possibilities of meeting their peers and exchanging ideas, and also of understanding how they can become more involved in the standardization process of the IEC. They get to experience standardization work in operation, both on a developmental level (through Technical Committee observation) and in applying it (through the CA systems).

The next IEC Young Professionals' workshop will take place in October 2011 in Melbourne, Australia, during the IEC General Meeting.

IEC National Committees were invited to submit their nominations by the end of June 2011.

Nominees will have the opportunity to network with professionals from all over the world as well as the occasion to observe a technical meeting in which standards are being developed and the SMB (Standardization Management Board) meeting where the IEC's decision-making body meets to plan and discuss strategic steps concerning the development of International Standards.

About biosensors and transducers

A primitive form of a biosensor is the example of the caged canary that the miners took underground to warn them of the presence of toxic gas. Many of today's biosensor applications are similar, in that they use organisms which respond to toxic substances at a much lower concentration than humans can detect to warn of the presence of the toxin. Such devices can be used in environmental monitoring, trace gas detection and in water treatment facilities.


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