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Avoid Product Recalls and Defective Returns
With These Five Tactics

By Bill Quarless

Earlier this year, China faced a major public relations disaster in my home country of the United States. The reason: You couldnít turn on an American TV without hearing about some new scare, recall or ban of Chinese products. From toys to televisions, suddenly every product American companies imported from China seemed to be a defective nightmare waiting to happen.

What a difference an Olympics can make. Today, when Americans think of China, they think of gold medals and Michael Phelps. But the lessons of those scares should not be lost. They taught us that nothing can destroy a company faster than a major defective return or product recall. Thankfully, there are a few commonsense tactics you can employ to avoid having your company become a scary headline.

1. Screen Factories for Quality Awareness

Many companies use price, capacity and location as key criteria for selecting a China factory, but they gloss over quality. Thatís because itís hard to assess quality before manufacturing begins Ė hard, but not impossible. Iíve found that asking a few choice questions, followed by a quick factory tour, can help determine if I have chosen the right factory. Those questions include:

ē How many workers are in your Quality Assurance/Quality Control department?
ē What quality assurance processes do they employ?
ē How important is quality control and WHY?

Youíd be surprised what sort of answers I hear, especially to that last question. They help me quickly weed out factories that donít understand the benefits of a strong quality-assurance program. Of course, just talking to a factory about quality isnít enough because they tell you what you want to hear. Thatís why I consider a factory tour equally essential.

During that tour, Iím looking to see if the factory floor and staff are neat and orderly, if production stations have written instructions with drawings posted, and if there are QC checkpoints and managers throughout the line. On that latter point, I want to see that every unit is being checked, visually and physically, before being packaged. These are all things I can assess before a factory ever produces a single piece of my clientís product.

2. Give Factories Explicit Quality Criteria

If you donít want defective goods to be discovered for the first time in your customersí homes, you will go through every possible defective scenario and address it before production begins. I subject products to a battery of tests where I try to create a defect. I also find written criteria to be essential. They make it clear what my client will find unacceptable by spelling out both major and minor defects. Then, these criteria are solidified with a ďgolden sampleĒ that is signed by both the client and the factory.

Simply affirming the importance of good quality in your early meetings with the factory goes a long way. Factories donít often think about long-term success and repeat orders. If you explain to them that itís in their best interest to spend the time and money needed to get the product quality right, they will respond favorably.

3. Visit Your Factories Frequently

Hereís an interesting statistic: You can improve quality by 20 percent just by drinking tea in your factory! At least, thatís what weíve found through informal research. The point is that having a frequent presence in your factory is the key to maintaining quality throughout the lifecycle of your project. Like it or not, you canít set and maintain quality standards by e-mail from the other side of the planet. Moreover, the shortcuts and money-saving changes factories make, such as using recycled plastic, only occur when clients are absent. When clients are in a factory on a regular basis, everyone stays busy trying to impress the customer, and that includes the factory QC staff. They can usually be found running around, rejecting products off the line. After all, the last thing they want is for the client to pick up a defective unit they missed!

4. Make Quality Control A Constant Process

A big mistake many companies make is to wait for final production to conduct their first QC inspection. The problem is the choices you face when you discover a problem at that point: You must either scrap the entire shipment or risk shipping garbage to your customers. For this reason, final production inspections should be the last phase of QC, not the first. The first phase is an IQC (Incoming Quality Control) inspection of the raw materials and parts that will be used to make your product. The second phase is ongoing inspections where a QC team literally pulls bad products off the production line at every stage. The third phase is having each product 100% inspected again before it is put into its packaging.

5. Hire a Professional Quality-Control Service

The last phase of QC should be a Final Random Inspection (FRI) of your goods. My company has its own QC team, but we often use a third-party company to conduct this phase. Thatís because we want the added security of a professional QC service telling us that quality control was properly executed throughout the production process. These services obtain random samples that represent the entire production lot, and then thoroughly check and test those samples against Acceptable Quality Levels (AQL).

A word of caution: Corruption can be a real problem in China, and itís not uncommon for inspectors to be bribed to approve goods. Thatís why I only work with QC companies that have great reputations and anti-corruption measures in place. For example, these companies might change inspectors with each new shipment, which prevents the factory from developing a ďfriendshipĒ with any one inspector. Or they might withhold most of an inspectorís pay for months at a time to ensure they donít make stupid mistakes.

Companies strive to get a lot of attention for their products, but nobody wants a product recall to be the reason. Stay quality conscious and use commonsense tactics like the ones above, and youíll keep your products on retail shelves and off the nightly news.

Bill Quarless is president and CEO of Impact Products Ltd., a firm specializing in China manufacturing for ďAs Seen on TVĒ companies. He lives in Hong Kong and can be reached at (852) 2139-3961, via e-mail at bill@impactproducts.com  or online at www.ImpactProducts.com.

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