Real and on-the-ground insights on quality in the Chinese manufacturing sector.
For many business owners in the West, making the decision to manufacture products or components from low-cost regions such as China is never an easy one. But most eventually cross that bridge because factories in these regions can manufacture your product for a fraction of what it costs you in the West.
Among the many concerns business owners have while considering this shift, one of the biggest has to do with quality. They wonder if a factory in China can manufacture their component or product to the same specifications as their suppliers in Europe or the US.
Sometimes their concerns are fuelled by a sticky perception (that is changing, thankfully) that the “Made in China” tag is synonymous with poor quality. While goods mass produced in China may have had quality issues up till a few years ago, a large number of factories in China now manufacture goods that match western quality standards and sometimes even exceed them.
The drivers for this change have been many – mainly larger exposure to the global market and its requirements, as well as the demands of the growing Chinese middle class. These domestic consumers are a massive market on their own and are seeking out and willing to pay for high-quality goods such as electronics, home décor, toys, clothing and accessories, sports and fitness goods.
In fact, some Chinese consumer brands are now globally recognised: think Xiaomi, Haier and Lenovo.
Having spent a few years in China working as a sourcing agent mainly for die casting, metal stamping and plastic injection moulding products, I’d like to share a few insights I have on quality in the Chinese manufacturing sector.
There is a difference in the cultural attitudes to quality in China as compared with Europe and the US. Though China has been a global exporter for years, that difference still exists, and buyers and sourcing agents frequently find themselves coming up against that attitude.
A common response is the phrase: “just about right”. During a quality inspection, you find the product has unacceptable deviations, but the factory representative will insist: “It’s just about right”.
When you are looking at a component that has specific quality standards that have been provided in detail in the manufacturing agreement, this response simply does not cut it when a product fails a quality inspection. Deviations of about .2 mm or differences in colour in a batch may be “just about right” for some manufacturers, but are unacceptable to many buyers and their customers. So though Chinese manufacturers think we are really picky sometimes, we labour on.
Having said that, the official standards that the West uses to audit quality control may not be a reliable indicator of quality control in a Chinese factory. This brings me to my second point.
If you audit Chinese factories using western standards you may find these two outcomes popping up quite frequently:
a. The factory’s quality control process will look terrible on paper but their product is likely to match your specifications.
b. The factory’s quality control process looks great in an audit, but your product is a disaster.
Why is this the case?
Western quality control standards such as having an in-process quality control officer at the factory may look good on paper, and a factory may even have one designated person on board, but do you know if that person is actually qualified for the job or is that person actually on the factory floor?
In my experience, having an old lady with callipers walking around the factory floor inspecting products as they are made is far more effective than a “quality control officer” whose presence looks impressive on paper and during an audit but does not really contribute to maintaining quality in the manufacturing process.
In my experience, most of the factories we work with perform quite well with regard to quality because that is what they specialise in. These small factories manufacture only a niche segment, and its employees know the ins and outs of that product.
Therefore, while choosing a factory in China, it is always a good idea to shortlist one that has a reputation for manufacturing that particular product, or one that has supplied to a western country before, as this means the factory is familiar with western quality expectations.
Additionally, while negotiating with the factory, carefully go over all your product specifications and other requirements and expectations and make sure they are communicated clearly, in writing.
You must either arrange for quality control inspections or conduct them yourself. Most factories are open to such inspections and you should avoid factories that resist these checks.
Follow these basic tips and you will get a good product (and less white hair) nine times out of 10.
This brings me to my third and final point.
Simply put, you get what you pay for. Raw materials, labour, electricity, and the maintenance of factory infrastructure such as machinery cost money. A manufacturer will therefore have a price floor – the minimum cost it takes to manufacture that product without compromising on quality.
Sometimes large buyers tend to attempt to beat down the supplier’s price even further, and the supplier may give way, perhaps because of the size of the order.
But remember that an unnatural reduction in price will always have repercussions elsewhere – perhaps in the use of cheaper (and lower quality) raw materials, less skilled factory workers or poor conditions of work. All this has implications on quality. In the long run, this can affect the delivery of your product and your reputation.
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