Imagine you’ve been working with a supplier for a couple of years to produce a solid stainless steel grill.
Everything has gone well. You’ve received good feedback from consumers and garnered favorable reviews. Until, one day, you notice a complaint. Then there is another one. And soon you’re receiving a whole string of complaints about your product.
It turns out that the grills getting into the hands of consumers aren’t solid stainless steel at all. They’re coated stainless steel.
The coating is chipping and the metal underneath it is starting to rust, making it very apparent. But how can this be happening? Your factory was making everything just fine before. The grill is supposed to be solid stainless steel and that’s how you’ve described it in your marketing materials.
Why would they have changed the materials in your product without saying anything?
The answer is something called Quality Fade.
Today we’re going to talk about the phenomenon of quality fade in Chinese manufacturing, why it happens, and how you can avoid it.
What is Quality Fade?
Quality fade is the slow, gradual degradation in the quality of a product over time, and it is a common issue in low-cost countries.
A brand can be known for its quality, and the factories they’re working with can have a good history. But, over time, slightly cheaper materials are substituted in, in small increments. All the while, quality is slowly starting to fade and, since the increments are so small, no one seems to notice.
Then, one day, a big problem manifests itself that leads to a recall or a rash of customer complaints and returns. And, although it seems like it happened suddenly, it wasn’t really sudden all. The degradation just happened very slowly.
Why Does Quality Fade Happen?
There are a few key reasons for this phenomenon.
The first reason is that factories are trying to reduce costs. Oftentimes, they feel pressure from buyers to keep costs low and to even lower them over time. Meanwhile, the cost of labor and the cost of materials are going up.
So as they look for ways to reduce their costs, quality fade becomes an unforeseen result. It can happen in a secretive way but it is not always malicious. Quality fade happens because they are not working collaboratively with the buyer to make decisions about product changes.
If the buyer has not properly specified material or other requirements in a specification sheet and does not have an approval sample, they may not feel tied to the original production standards, so they make substitutions.
Perhaps it’s a plastic product that was originally being made in a bright, vibrant shade of red. But, over time, the pigment mix is reduced and the color slowly goes from a bright red to a faded red that is only noticeable when comparing the current product to one from a year ago.
Sometimes, there is a level of complacency on the part of the buyer when it comes to inspections. The specified variance in product measurements is 2.5mm. But the variance is consistently 3mm and shipments are accepted every time, despite receiving a FAIL result.
Other times, because the buyer has such a great relationship with the manufacturer and they have a good history of working together, they stop doing inspections altogether.
With less accountability, there is less pressure on the factory to meet specific standards.
How Can You Avoid Quality Fade With Your Products?
The reality of the business environment is that costs can go up and they rarely go down.
Importers should understand this and try to have an open and honest dialog with their manufacturers. When costs increase, you should either:
- Be willing to pay more for the same product at the same level of quality, or
- Work collaboratively with the factory and brainstorm to figure out low-impact design changes that are acceptable for everyone.
You should make every effort to truly partner with your factories and help them reduce their costs by working together. For example, perhaps you have a product with a stainless steel part that can be replaced with a high-quality rubber one. This type of substitution might be preferable to a lower grade of metal.
But before you can start partnering on these kinds of changes, you need to be sure you’ve started out on the right foot and are using the right methods for holding them accountable.
We say in the industry that, “quality begins with the buy.”
This means that you need to set expectations by:
- Having a detailed bill of materials (BOM), where applicable, and a specification sheet that is as detailed as possible.
- Having approval samples or material samples made at the start of your relationship with the supplier.
- Creating a clear and specific quality plan and notifying suppliers in advance that you will be conducting product inspections.
Most of all, don’t become complacent.
Just because you have a good relationship with your manufacturer and have had a good history of quality output does not mean you should stop conducting inspections altogether.
Being Smart About Your Quality Control Budget
At Insight, we advocate for what’s called a “smart quality spend.”
That means that if you’re working with multiple suppliers, you can reduce inspections at high-performing factories while increasing them at low-performing ones.
Also, if you are conducting inspections on every single shipment with a supplier, you can move to a skip lot program, reducing the frequency of inspection since they are meeting certain quality metrics.
But, when you do this, you keep a close eye on the inspection results.
You can work out a deal where you get them to agree that if their failure rates go up, they are responsible for the cost of additional inspections going back up to the 100% level.
It is important that you have good checklists with documented requirements and clear expectations about what’s being checked.
Quality fade is a common problem in low-cost manufacturing countries.
It often manifests itself as a major product quality issue that seems to appear almost out of nowhere. But it’s really just the result of a slow and gradual slide over time. The slide can occur due to pressure from buyers to keep costs low, together with a lack of proper quality control measures and accountability in place.
To avoid quality fade with your products, it is important that you spend your quality dollars wisely, have a clear quality plan in place, and collaborate with factories to see how you can lower costs together.
As always, it is important to keep in mind the balance between price and quality. For more information on how to do this, we recommend reading the following eBook.
Price vs. Quality: What You Need to Know
When you’re making products to sell in the marketplace, you have to consider the tradeoffs between price and quality. Sometimes, producing better quality products can lead to paying a higher price for manufacturing.
Download our free white paper, Price vs. Quality, to learn how to produce great quality while keeping your costs low.