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China: Overcoming the Quality Challenge

March 31, 2008
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It is one of today’s biggest issues: Quality in Chinese manufacturing. Tainted toothpaste, lead in toys and poisoned pet food have brought the issue front and center, and it is creating a downward spiral of panic and over-reaction.

Consumers are weary of China, many threatening to boycott electronic, automotive and other goods. While it may seem practical to some, manufacturers-and quality control professionals-know that is not the answer. Avoiding China can carry major negative business implications.

And for quality control professionals, the responsibility falls on them. They have the power to make the most of manufacturing investments in China-and deliver the most reliable products to market in the safest, most responsive fashion at lower costs. The key: adopting the mantra of “trust, but verify” and leveraging technology to be your eyes and ears half a world away.

Why China Cannot be Ignored

As globalization rates expand, manufacturers need to think smarter, and in many cases that entails outsourcing work to China. Despite reliability concerns, China is simply too good to pass up, particularly where today’s consumers demand innovation, at mass-market prices.

China answers that call, housing one of the world’s fastest-growing manufacturing and electronics assembly markets, as well as the advanced infrastructure needed to produce high-volume goods, at the low costs not found anywhere else.

It is for that reason China is a clear component of many manufacturers’ competitive strategy; avoiding the country can carry devastating consequences, such as lower volume control, higher prices and extra resources demanded.

As China falls under scrutiny, more pressure seems to fall on quality control professionals. How could they let these defective goods be produced? And what steps can they take to ensure it does not happen again? If the focus is placed on the right spot, manufacturers can ensure the most reliable product is delivered to market, while gaining the full cost and volume advantages offered by the Chinese economy.

Despite this, quality control professionals are in a tight predicament. They are tasked to ensure the product is pushed to market in the most reliable fashion. Of course, in many cases, it is a lot easier said than done. They find themselves heavily restrained as they enter the ongoing tug-of-war with other parts of the organization that are mandating any steps to speed the time to market, including several “corners cut” on quality, where products are not fully tested. Quality professionals usually don’t get their way-and that can lead to the unwanted limelight in the negative headlines.

Placing Controls on Quality

Bringing accountability into a fragmented Chinese outsourcing market is an uphill battle-particularly with the language barrier, immature business processes, cultural differences and a new set of external talent.

The key is developing a strategy that ties technology, business processes and people together in a common mission to ensure quality.

One way to achieve this is through having quality offices in China. These provide the flexibility and operations to better leverage the country’s full resources while ensuring highly accountable manufacturing processes driven by test and product quality. Professionals can gain a myriad of test controls from within Chinese borders, including final system integration across multiple contract manufacturers, as well as the seamless ability to manage the production line and maintain sufficient engineering services after the product has been shipped.

If the cost of establishing an additional operation is too high, technology can help. Systems today are available that can gather test and quality data from globally distributed locations to monitor and measure deviations from the standards a company sets, well enough in time for corrective action and, therefore, prevention of embarrassing failures.

Increasingly, manufacturers are looking to create highly auditable, closed-loop systems for tracking and eliminating performance issues. Integrating test information from all stages of the manufacturing process-from production and in-field testing to the return and repair stages and warranties-achieves this goal.

For instance, information gained in the warranty stage can provide real-world intelligence into how certain components are expected to function, what types of suppliers are more reliable and, most importantly, where potential problem spots are.

Taking this holistic, co-location test approach ensures potential issues can be traced and resolved in the most effective and rapid fashion.

At the end of the day, the Chinese market may be highly criticized for deficient products, but moving business away from this vibrant economy can be competitive suicide. With the right integrated test strategy, these fears can be avoided and quality can take its rightful place-atop the entire product lifecycle-to drive more efficient manufacturing processes.

Launching a comprehensive test strategy and limiting risk can allow quality professionals to be the heroes of an organization, giving companies a way to tap the full benefits of the Chinese economy, without having to worry about landing on the front page of the newspaper.

Technology Tips

  • The key to bringing accountability into a fragmented Chinese outsourcing market is developing a strategy that ties technology, business processes and people together in a common mission to ensure quality.

  • Quality offices in China provide the flexibility and operations to better leverage the country’s full resources, while ensuring highly accountable manufacturing processes driven by test and product quality.

  • If this is not an option, software solutions are available that can gather test and quality data from globally distributed locations to monitor and measure deviations from standards, well enough in time for corrective action and, therefore, prevention of embarrassing failures.
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