Of all the inspections I’ve reviewed and observed, two in particular stand out to me: a shipment of lanyards bound for the US, and a shipment of portable slow cookers bound for the EU. These inspections are interesting both for their similarities and their differences, and they point to some important trends in the ever-changing landscape of quality control in China.
Growing up in America, it was pretty safe to assume that you could pick up any product within arm’s reach, look at the label, and it would say “Made in China.” As a little kid I knew China as “that place where everything is made.” At the same time, Chinese-made products were mostly associated with poor quality, cheap knock-offs, etc. So, when I got the opportunity to work at a quality control company in China, I figured the work would have to be pretty interesting.
As an Account Manager at V-Trust, I spend most of my days in an office building chained to my computer, but from time to time I get the opportunity to break free from my cubicle and actually visit a factory to observe one of our inspectors do his job.
Of all the inspections I’ve reviewed and observed, two in particular stand out to me: a shipment of lanyards bound for the US, and a shipment of portable slow cookers bound for the EU. These inspections are interesting both for their similarities and their differences, and they point to some important trends in the ever-changing landscape of quality control in China. Before arriving at the lanyard factory, I read over our client’s special requests and arranged to meet up with one of our inspectors specializing in textiles, Mr. Xu. Although the coming inspection involved 12 different styles of lanyards, he said the inspection today should be pretty straightforward.
Once we arrived at the location, we met the factory’s QC manager and a scrawny kid I assumed to be his assistant. After the standard small-talk, we got to work. Inside a clean, air-conditioned room the inspection started with the simplest of tasks: count the number of lanyards in each poly bag. According the client’s specs, there should be 50 lanyards per bag, but the first bag totaled 45 units. The manager looked a little uneasy. A record was made, and our inspector moved onto the next bag, which had 47 units, and then the next bag which had 49. At this point, Mr. Xu started asking the manager questions about the packaging process—whether it’s automated or hand-counted, etc. One never really knows how management will react in these situations, but the manager immediately picked up the phone and called the production staff to tell them the problem. No arguing, no negotiating—it was clear that he took our inspection seriously.
Following our checklist for lanyards, next came the stress test. One after another, Mr. Xu pulled firmly at the stitching. After a while, the assistant said to me in Chinese “I’ve pulled on these as hard as I could. They don’t break.” And although this kid had pencil-like arms, he seemed to have a point. After testing over 50 units, all without a single defect, the test did feel a little redundant. I started thinking to myself “this factory clearly has years of experience making these; their internal QC team checks the stitching all day every day. What are the odds of our inspector actually finding a stitching defect on one of these?” And then a lanyard promptly broke at the seam. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked at it. The manager walked over, took a picture of it, and sent it to the production staff. Ultimately the number of stitching defects was still within the Acceptance Quality Limit (AQL) set by our client, so the lanyards passed the stress test.
There were still plenty more tests to do for a variety of defects ranging from minor to critical, like comparing the colors to the PO specs (making sure they’re all exactly the right shade by using a pantone), checking for blurry lettering, performing a carton drop test, and yet another stress test, this time for the metal latch using a tensile testing machine that measures the kilogram-force it can withstand. By the end of the day Mr. Xu finished all of his tests, wrote the report, and we left the factory.
As you might imagine, the slow-cooker inspection looked quite different. For starters, the inspector I accompanied was an electrical appliance specialist and from different section of our technical department, but he too had special requests from the client and a product-specific checklist to carry out the inspection.
Among other things, each unit in the sample selection has to be tested for electrical safety with hi-pot testing. If a single unit fails the test, the entire inspection is failed. Any defect that can affect the safety of a product is a critical defect. None failed our inspection (although the inspector told me a microwave he inspected yesterday did in fact fail). We proceeded to the next step, the internal check. The inspector picked up a screwdriver and took the entire thing apart, checking for common defects like inconsistent welding or rust. After that, it’s the full-function test. We read every page of the instruction manual and then made sure the actual product does everything the manual says it does. Does the cooker reach the maximum 90°C? Does the “E1” signal show when there isn’t enough water? Does the temperature go up when you press the up button? Does it operate at 1100 watts? One after the other, test after test, barcode after barcode, he checked each unit and filled in the checklist.
As with the lanyard inspection, V-Trust had a very specific checklist for the inspection, one of over 1400 we have ready to go for all kinds of products. The tests are all strict and quite repetitive, but that’s the point. That’s what quality control is. In most cases, the majority of the units tested don’t have even minor defects. While observing the inspections, it can feel quite monotonous seeing the same test performed hundreds of times in a row… that is, until something snaps, or the quantity isn’t right, or a unit fails the surge testing. Our inspectors find minor, major, and critical defects every day. It’s the inspector’s job to find the problems before the consumer does, and when you view it in this way, QC is anything but boring.
Chinese factories are also not the dystopian nightmares I’d pictured in my mind years earlier. Of course each factory is different, and there are many regions in China that aren’t as well-developed as mine. But the need for third-party QC in less established factories is obvious. The point is, there are plenty of great factories in China with very professional internal QC that welcome third-party inspections. Any QC team, whether it’s internal or third-party, knows that an extra set of eyes never hurts.