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Lately I have been hearing a lot about “quality fade” in China.   Generally, when a contract is signed and specs are given for initial production at a new supplier, importers of Chinese-made goods are thrilled.  I have worked with several clients that were very pleased with the quality and especially the price of initial production.  Although selecting and qualifying a new supplier is a complicated process, it is typically a sound economic decision and new importers feel like they’ve hit a home run.

But don’t be fooled!  The initial production runs are often not sustainable.  In order to quote a low “China price,” a Chinese manufacturer knows that he must continuously look for ways of reducing production costs in order to make a profit.  Reducing production costs takes one of two forms:  using shadow factories or cutting corners. 

In a previous post, I have discussed shadow factories – those “behind-locked-gates obscure production facilities”  that you will never see.  These shadow factories are the true Chinese sweat shops where costs are lower than in Five Star Factories.

The other way costs are reduced is through the process of quality fade.  This is where your supplier will subtly start to cut corners to reduce costs.  The plastic bottle your product comes in may get slightly thinner.  The label may get 10% smaller. The wiring used in electronics may get slightly downgraded.  The paint used for your product may be slightly lower quality, or contain more lead so it dries faster. The water used to mix products may be a tiny bit less pure. The bottles may be slightly less full by a cc or two.

Unfortunately, these slight changes may not be noticeable for a very long time or until the combination of corner-cutting makes the product fail or be unacceptable for consumers …or in the case of Mattel Toys or White Rabbit candy, downright dangerous.

To many Chinese manufacturers, this is just a normal part of the “game” of the manufacturing business.  Quality fade is a common tactic employed to keep the China price low.

So what can you do to avoid quality fade?  First, make sure that the exact specs for production are written into every contract.  Don’t assume anything. 

Second, there is no substitute for constant monitoring.  You must constantly test, review and audit all products coming from Chinese manufacturers and take immediate action if you detect a problem. 

Third, establish an on-going on-site QA process (both announced and unannounced) to validate everything.

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