Importing from China: How logistic and shipping can affect your product quality

China Import Logistics Issue Product Quality

When we usually refer to import risks related to product quality when purchasing in China or in Asia we instantly think that quality can be affected by a few several different types of factors: manufacturing process, raw materials used, workmanship.

One disregarded risk which can alter your product quality is the risks related to logistics. Indeed, I have seen some clients in the past managing very well their sourcing and manufacturing process with their Chinese suppliers but neglecting totally the importance related to logistics.

I particularly remember one of those european based customer who imported furniture from China. An inspector for a Pre-Shipment Inspection was sent to the Chinese factory to ensure the conformity of the goods before the client would pay balance to its supplier. At the time of the inspection, the quality inspector reported the goods were OK to ship. Knowing the goods where furniture, we also proposed the client to perform a Container Loading Supervision but she declined it for budget reason. When the loading time came, the chinese supplier loaded the furniture by himself into the container (we were not present at this time as the client didn’t want we inspect the container loading process).

A few weeks later, the client received the container in her own country. When she opened it, she got a surprise: 50% of the furnitures have been damaged because improper loading and shaking during transportation have occurred. At this point, this is when you realize how logistics can play a huge factor in how your goods quality are.

In this post, you will learn how you can reduce this risk by implementing simple but efficient actions on your production to avoid such issues:

1./ Performing packaging design properly and anticipate shaking 

  • Most of time, packaging designer will always think in terms of beauty to design their packaging but they will rarely consider packaging design in terms of efficiency for transportation. Think about it this way: when products are shipped they are usually ship into cartons per pack of several. Logistics and transportation are making your cartons moving and shaking highly (hand moving, truck moving, for lift moving, ship moving etc…). They are some vibration almost all the time. If you design your packaging improperly (let’s say with pointy shape in polycarbonate case and without film protection) then you might take the risk to have your packaging to be damaged during transportation (typical example are the appearing of scratches on shiny surface). 
  • Try to think about how 10 packaging will be packed in a master carton without damaging each other: are you capable to make some sensitive packaging face avoiding to intersect with others so they will not get scratched ?

So, when your packaging designer design your packaging he should think about this. A simple way to solve this problem is to :

  • use shape without sharp edges
  • use shape which can make your packaging not moving when stacked all together
  • use plastic film to avoid scratches
  • use polystyrene to protect your goods inside packaging if necessary

2./ Add Inner carton

Sometimes you will pack your products the best way of the world in a master carton but still the goods will get damaged because moving too much into the master carton. Another problem which may also appear when you pack all your products directly into your master carton is that the master carton will not get very rigid, hence subject to deformations, hence fragile, hence to crack and open.

You can avoid this issue by adding an extra layer of protection using inner cartons: instead of having 100 products being stacked directly into a master carton, you can for example create 10 inner cartons of 10 pieces each and to have those 10 inner cartons into the master cartons. It got several advantages 

  • It rigidify your master carton making it less capable to deformation and to crack
  • It add an extra protection to your products as a second skin and it is perfect for protecting your products against potential damages due to outside elements such as rain falling onto master cartons or any other liquid. It also protect your product packaging from carton dropping (in this case only master carton and inner carton will get damaged but not the sales packaging)
  • It is easier to manipulate at destination (have you already found that that some products placed on shelf of supermarkets are quite often directly placed in to inner carton ?)

3./ Choose proper master carton 

It sounds easy to manage with carton but this tiny little items can have its importance when performing your import because it can also cause several issues. The most frequent issues is related to carton not protecting properly the goods inside it or  being broken or destroyed during manipulation.To avoid this, here are a few tips:

  • Use cartons which are made with glue and staples and not only glue because stapes will strengthen the structure of your carton
  • Don’t load too much your master cartons (no more than 15 kgs) because then the carton structure may tear down too easily in case of shock
  • Perform some drop test to check your cartons are enough solid. The typical test which fail on drop test is the corner test where quite often the packaging of your product will get damaged. When I was a quality inspector, most of drop test failed when dropping cartons on corners. Believe me or not, but when loading or unloading are concerned, workers may easily drop or throw cartons. And if it happens on the corner of your cartons and your cartons is not solid enough , then you will easily get some damaged products in your cargo. 
  • Choose cartons enough thick with enough ply (two ply is a minimum but 3 ply is much better)
  • Don’t make cartons too big/large in terms of dimension if you can avoid it: Bigger structure on a tiny layer is easily deformable and easily breakable (this is logical mechanical engineering). Between the choice of 2 small cartons vs 1 big carton to pack the same goods , prefer the 2 small cartons options (it is also easier to manipulate and to carry).

4./ Use palets and plastic filming as much as you can

If you have your goods being packed already into your master cartons, now they might be ready to ship. But wait, do you know how your Chinese vendor is going to load your container or send your goods to your air shipping carrier? Do you know how it is going to be manipulated ?

You know, sometimes when goods are pilled up in container and if the container is not fully loaded, goods may fall by themselves inside the container during transportation (oh yes, although container carrier are big ship, if there is a storm the ship will move highly).

Don’t leave the option open for potential damages and ask your supplier to load first all your cartons on palets and to use a plastic film around your cartons. It will bring the following advantages 

  • Cartons will not be carried by hand in the container because then the unit become the palet, not the carton. It will avoid some useless risk of damaging during transportation.
  • It standardize your process and make it easy to load and unload your goods with a forklift it is much faster than doing it by hand
  • You can calculate very easily spacing both in your container and in your warehouse
  • Master cartons are isolated from the floor by the palet hence in case of liquid spilling your cartons will not be affected
  • Master cartons are isolated from outside elements such as rain due to plastic film wrapping around and on the top of the cargo
  • Palet and film bring stability to your cargo because then cartons being on palet can not move and fall from the palet (due to the film wrapping holding the whole content of the palet can not tilt out of the palet)

Palet plastic film wrapping to avoid cargo damage during shipment.

5./ Perform loading inspection or supervision

Getting someone on site to verify how your goods are loaded can help in several way to witness the following:

  • Raining: If at loading time it is raining, does the goods are properly protected from the rain when they get loaded ? Normally, a careful supplier should bring the container opening directly at the factory loading door area to load the goods, so there is no gap between the container door and the factory door. However, in some particular situation (if another loading fro another client is already occurring and block the factory door access) then they may not be able to bring the container door directly to the factory door. In this case between the factory loading area and the container several maters may separate the factory door from the container door. If your shipment fall in the typhoon timing (mostly between july and august), and if your shipment are not palletized and protected by a plastic film, I can guarantee you to receive cartons being completely wet (and may be your products with it) 
  • Proper loading: If you didn’t palletized your products, how the goods get loaded into the container? Are they thrown by hand like potato bags or trash (yes I saw this in the past) or are they delicately and carefully brought and placed in your container 
  • Container sealing: Verify your container condition. Does your container is properly sealed or is there any hole allowing potentially water infiltration during transportation ? Sometimes, containers being sent by freight forwarders are old. Container are made of metal and they rust. When they are too old, the structure may rust so much that holes and crack are appearing on the metal structure. When they are piled up on cargo tankers, it may happens that raining or storm appear during transportation due to storm. Then, water may infiltrate in your container making your cartons completely wet. Sometimes, issue comes from the doors who are not closing properly and here again you will get water infiltration. So, always make sure your containers are properly sealed.
  • Container smelling bad: Sometimes, the container smell bad due to transportation of other previous cargo in it, it can contaminate your products (think about the case of transportation of scrap in a container in which you may load with clothes…even packed sometimes smell infiltration may contaminate). 
  • Humidity: if your container is not dry inside but get some water or any other liquid on the floor, then with heat it may generate some vapor which may either contaminate your product or may generate some moistures 

Related to container and transportation issues, I always recommend to contract an insurance to protect your goods from damages to your shipping agent on one side, and I also recommend to perform a container loading inspection or container loading supervision so that in case of issue due to logistics you can easily make a claim to your shipping agent (because your supplier will not be responsible of dirty container or leaking container...)

6./ Prefer to ship your goods rather via FCL than LCL

FCL meaning Full Container Loading and LCL mean Loose Container Loading. FCL is usually used when you buy enough quantity to fill a full container, whereas LCL is used when your goods volume can not fill the space of a container.

Mostly, it is better to use a FCL shipment rather than LCL because then all the container space if filled with your goods only. If you are on a LCL situation however then the container is shared with goods from other clients of the shipping agent. 

This increase the risks in several way: 

  • Getting contamination from other cargos: after all you don’t really know what is loaded and you don’t know how the container get filled, by who and with what. In short, you have no control of what your products are travelling with. If a dangerous product (let’s say flammable one) from another customer is placed in the container nearby your product then there is a risk to get your goods being damaged. 
  • Because LCL require to load container to consolidate goods with different customers cargo, then it means there is a moving being done from one container (or one truck) between your suppliers and the port, to another container which will go on the ship. Since there is an extra moving it means there is an extra risk of damaging your goodsUsing a FCL shipment will eliminate those risk because the container being used to transport your goods is hosting only your own goods. Hence, there is no risk of contamination possible by another cargo  and the number of move to transfer your goods from one place to another is also reduced, so the risk is so. 

7./ Prefer a shipping agent who deal with the logistic chain from A to Z

In another post (here Difference between a China based shipping agent vs a Hong Kong based shipping agent), I explain why choosing a proper shipping agent is important. Indeed, some shipping agent are sub contracting part of the shipping process to other companies and this can happen for several reasons (the main one being the shipping agent you appointed just doesn’t have presence or licence in the country where the logistics has to be performed.

In this case, most of them enter in partnership with some locally based and licensed shipping agent who perform the work for your shipping agent. Of course, your shipping agent will never tell you this but I have seen this happening several times in the past. The typical scheme happen when a client appoint a shipping agent based in Hong Kong or in his own country who doesn't have chinese shipping agent licence and can not export the goods by himself or who doesn't have truck to pick the goods at the factory. In this case they send another company who have this licence and the truck to pick the goods at the factory, hence they sub-contract.

When they do so, they loose control on the shipping process and who knows what happens between the factory door and the ship. I have seen several time sub-contractor picking goods like potatoes not caring anything about the goods conditions (when they just didn't steal a few pieces doing hole directly into cartons: yes I saw it done by some employees from DHL !)

Hence, you should prefer to use a shipping agent who manage the whole chain from A to Z, who got his own truck, who got his own licence and employee in China.

I hope this blog post will help you to improve your China import.

Feel free to share your experience about quality issue you may have faced when importing from China. Do you have any question ?

About Christopher Oliva 59 Articles
Christopher Oliva is an Engineer based in Shenzhen since 2008 involved in Product Development, Supply Chain, Sourcing, Quality Management and Manufacturing activities. With a Msc Electrical Engineering and a Business Administration background, an ISO 9001 Lead Auditor Certification, a Six Sigma Certification and a Quality Engineering Certification, he works as a consultant on mission and contract oriented to Product Development, Manufacturing Management, Quality Assurance & Quality Management System setup. He works in the product development and engineering field, and as well as an advisor and quality consultant for several quality control and quality assurance companies.