As I am working as a consultant as Senior Quality Inspector and Quality Engineer in a third party quality inspection company in China I frequently get people asking me how they should prepare their quality inspection in China and Asia.
I quite often realize that many people who manage import just don’t have a lot of background regarding how to make sure their quality control in China would work well.
In this article I indicate a few points of care which can be followed in order to attempt to optimize your quality control operation in China and in Asia.
Here is my list:
# Anticipation vs discovery
Most of importers usually only manage their import and product quality management on a reactive way. Too often they will place an order to their supplier, then will wait the order to finish, and finally would send a quality inspector to check the goods via Pre-Shipment Inspection.
Sometimes they discover some quality issue on their production and they attempt to fix the issue with their supplier by asking them to rework the goods. Issue come out when the supplier doesn’t want to rework the goods at no cost because he quickly compute his cost to unpack every goods, rework all the goods, and repack everything. The problem should have been found earlier, now it is a little bit too late…
This way to work is a corrective approach and not a preventive one. In this kind of situation everybody suffer: the importer will suffer a late delivery due to product reworking time. The asian vendor will suffer margin decrease due to reworking cost to unpack, fix, and repack their product.
During all the years where I have been managing with high volume order at Chinese factories, I understood that a preventive approach is a much better and more efficient approach as it allows to save some hassle, to save time, and to sustain relationship with suppliers.
A preventive approach require a more involved accompaniment by the importer to his supplier to help him to avoid problem during and after production. Most of people in the west would think « but why should I make this baby sitting and pampering job to my supplier ? He is my supplier and he should handle this himself ». Well if in the west this mindset is true, in the far east things can go differently due to cultural reason. The notion of who is responsible for what, but also because commercial relationship are more complicated (if you are a SME and dip into an international commercial context your power to act on your vendor with a legal standpoint is not as obvious as it would be in the west), so you better adopt a position of partner accompanying your vendor rather than just acting as a principal.
Adopting a preventive and anticipated standpoint versus a corrective and discovery one can save you a lot of hassle in endless discussion and negotiation post ordering.
# Review sample properly and pro actively
When placing an order to your supplier, an essential point to prepare a quality control operation is to review samples carefully. You should never place an order to a manufacturer if you don’t have a sample in hand to review. A sample can help you a lot to understand what you are buying obviously, but it can also give you some indication of the type of problem you may face regarding quality purpose.
I don’t know if you have this experience, but too often when in the past I requested samples from suppliers, if the supplier accepted to give me a sample for free, most of time he sent me a bad one: one sample he considers is free because bad. By “bad”, I mean a defective one: one sample they have produced in the past and which they have on the shelf because they didn’t ship it to their client.
When receiving a bad sample there are two ways to process: either you just reject this supplier as wrong source simply, or you try to understand why he sent you a bad sample and how you can avoid to receive some bad product too. Sometimes, you have no other sources than this supplier for your product. You will have to work with them no matter what because they may be the only one on the market to be capable to manufacture the product you want (it happened to me in the past for a particular product).
# Understanding defects and related manufacturing process
When I receive a sample, the first thing I attempt to do is to understand how the product is manufactured, and if possible I also try to understand how it was initially designed. Those two considerations help considerably to understand what can go wrong on a mass production in terms of defect generation.
This process is quite similar to a DFMEA process: I usually inspect carefully all the materials used and I attempt to understand how the parts are made: which machines are used to make parts, which tools are used, how many processes are there, where are the risks related to production, how are set the flow of materials, etc… There is a real work to do to understand where are the risks related to manufacturing and quality.
If you have experience of having boots on the ground like I do, after spending more than 9 years in Asia visiting factories very frequently, then this task is not as much complicated as it may seems. I admit it, this is not an easy task if you don’t have experience or background to understand the technical and industrial processes used to make your product (which unfortunately the case of many international buyers whose duties are usually to make POs)
If you don’t have the experience, some affordable solutions are existing : you can send an auditor to a Chinese manufacturer to perform a supplier audit. An ISO 9001 audit type audit at your manufacturer facility can help you to have a better understanding of which machine is used, what are the process flow, how are stored raw materials, which process are the most risky one etc…
# Listing and classifying all possible defects, their cause and their remedy
When reviewing samples sent by your vendor, and after having understood the manufacturing process about how your product is manufactured, then you can start listing all the possible defects and problems which may appear and append during and after the production of your product.
Then, once having this list done, you can start thinking about potential preventive solutions to avoid getting those defectives being generated. Working this way will avoid your supplier to rework all the goods later on. If you can not implement preventive actions, then you should established a corrective action plan that your manufacturer can easily implement during the production.
Here is an example: In the past, I have purchased some plastic products for the european market from a Chinese manufacturer. He was the only one to make this plastic part on the market as he was the only one to have opened a tooling for this product. I could have open a tooling myself for this product but the delivery time for my client was too short. So I had no choice than working with this manufacturer.
When I received the sample before placing order, I noticed there were some defects on the sample: especially dirty marks on the plastic. I could have just sent the order and just wait the production to finish to send an inspector to perform a Pre-Shipment Inspection like most buyers do.
Instead, I told my supplier even before starting the mass production to get ready to clean the parts with clean water and clean tissue just after the extraction of the plastic part from the injection press to correct the defect as at that time the part is stil hot and easy to correct.
I also remember that samples also had some oil mark. So I quickly sent a factory auditor to audit the Chinese supplier before launching the production. It was quick because Asia Quality Control have supplier auditors ready to go any factory in China within 48 hours. With the audit report, I discovered that maintenance of the press was not done properly. The plastic injection press had some oil leakage from the mechanism and this oil was time to time flowing to the mold cavity. I quickly advised my supplier to clean his plastic injection press before starting the production. Otherwise, it would generate a lot of defects that I would reject anyway and he would loose a lot money and time. This is a typical preventive and proactive approach which allow to safeguard good relationships with your vendors, this even if initially you consider that this is not your responsibility to do so.
If you have any doubt why defects are appearing on your sample, you should obviously ask your vendor why there are such defects. Going deep into the “why”, and finding a solution about how to avoid those defects before starting the production will help you to make your import operation successful. This approach doesn’t mean defectives will not appear at all but at least you reduce the chance to get some on your production.
To anticipate all those issues, I advise you to make a document (a kind of « augmented » quality control checklist) including defect number, defect description, a picture of the defect type, criticality of the defect, potential causes of the defect, and what can be done to avoid it or to correct it (this is where understanding manufacturing process is very important). You can attach this form to your PO and ask your supplier to review it. If you need a such form, you can contact me.
# Prepare a testing procedure
If your product is a product with important functionalities and in the case which not only cosmetic and exterior appearance is important, then you should prepare some testing list procedure to make sure your device is operating properly.
Whatever the nature of your products, there are probably many on site testing which can be done on your product to verify that your final user will not be disappointed by your product when using it. Testing can be as simple as making sure a bottle doesn’t leak from its cap when being filled with a liquid and being flip upside down, to a much more complex testing list for electronic device which may have dozen of functions to check before considering the device is ok to ship.
Think about a mobile phone for example, how many things can go wrong on this kind of items ? Many : Operating system issue, App not installing well, miss of Google Play Store due to lack of GMS certification, wifi issue such as unstable connection, gsm issue such as poor signal reception, bluetooth issue, screen display issue with broken pixel or improper brightness, charging issue such as battery quality discharging too quickly, touch panel issue as not recognizing all the touch point, speaker issue as volume being too low, , etc… the list is long and should not be neglected particularly if your product price tag is high.
From my experience, the most sensible products related to functionalities testing are electronics, IT and computer accessories, Audio and Video and Appliances (as they get more and more sophisticated now).
To organize this properly, you should build a Testing List including what should be tested, how, and what is the expected result of this test. So that when a quality inspection is performed all those functions are tested and your product can be validated or not. The work to prepare this testing list may takes time because you need to think about everything that can go wrong. If you have time to do it, then I recommend you spend the necessary time to make it because it will help to secure your import a bit more.
Once done, you can attach this testing list procedure to your PO when ordering the goods from your supplier so your supplier can also use this testing list before declaring the goods ready to ship.
# Inspect early
All the tips given previously will help you to reduce risk related to quality on your product. Whatever you perform a DFMEA process or any other process to prepare your import operation the risk still remain and you can not eliminate it 100%.
Despite all the preventive actions you may have implemented some corrective actions still might be necessary. In this case I highly recommend you to inspect your mass production at the beginning of the production via an Initial Production Inspection operation.
The advantage of doing so is that you can catch problem early in the production and implement correction and corrective action as soon as possible for what quantity is remaining to produce. Indeed, it is much easier to rework 10% of products already made and establish a corrective action plan for the remaining 90% of your mass production not produced yet than reworking 100% of the whole batch. It will be easier to negotiate a 10% reworking to your supplier than 100% for sure.
No matter you trust your supplier or not, you should anticipate and make everything possible to pamper him regarding production issue, and this to limit the risk he get trouble during production. This is particularly true if your production is in rush: you should pamper and assist more as in this case failure is not an option. Better prevent than cure..
Try to adopt a position of being partners assisting each other rather than using an enforcing position of “I buy, you have to supply”. Relationship in the west and in the far east are well different and in international context, court and other law actions can be costly and not always issuing judgement to your advantage.