Dan Harris wrote an article about product safety (How to Reduce Your Foreign Manufactured Product Liability Risks) that will, hopefully, open the eyes of many people to the risks they are exposed to.
I thought it particularly interesting because he went through typical questions asked of importers that resold unsafe products:
To convince recalcitrant clients of the need for product liability protection for the products they are having made overseas, I sometimes send them the following deposition questions asked of a U.S. manufacturer whose China-made product had badly injured a child…
Let’s go through this list of 7 questions, one at a time. I’ll suggest what importers should have done to be in a position to offer solid responses to each of them…
1. How did you choose your China product supplier in the first place? What sort of due diligence did you do on that supplier?
There are really two cases here.
If the product was designed by the importer, this should focus on preventing manufacturing inconsistency. An audit of the supplier’s quality management system, and confirmation that they do own/control the manufacturing facility, should already help a lot.
If the product is purchased ‘off the shelf’, the buyer’s due diligence should include what I mentioned above, but it should also try to detect design-related risks — related to the users’ foreseeable behaviors, of potential ‘design defects‘, etc.
(Most people think buying such standard products can be done with a very hands-off process, but a risk analysis might suggest a very hands-on approach.)
2. Did you clearly put your specifications in your contract with your Chinese supplier? Was your contract written so as to actually bind your manufacturer under Chinese law? How do you know that it was?
3. Can you show me the provisions in your contract relating to product quality and safety? What product specifications did you require of your Chinese manufacturer? Is this in your contract with them? Where?
You have to define your requirements in a specific way, and it’s always good to sign an enforceable contract with the manufacturer.
And here, again, many companies buy existing products and seem to think the specifications should come from the manufacturer. For laptops or smartphones that’s often the case (although not always at the level of details needed), but for furniture or gym equipment, for instance, it usually isn’t.
And, if you design your own product, you really need to take the time to define your requirements. Communicating it in Wechat calls is not a good practice. The R&D engineers should make it a testing plan and should apply it to their prototypes!
4. Did you just go with what your Chinese supplier was telling you about the safety of its product or did you test it yourself? Please describe each and every product test you conducted.
Certain safety requirements are very clearly specified by the relevant authorities (e.g. UL, FCC, CPSIA, CE, REACH, and so on and so forth). If you don’t confirm compliance with those standards, you will probably be blamed for serious negligence if an issue lands you in court. Testing is not a must (for example, all the materials may already be certified as food safe), but you need to take reasonable steps.
Other safety issues are a bit trickier. But, at the very least, conduct a structured approach to risk analysis & mitigation.
5. What exactly did you do to make sure the product you were getting from China confirmed to your contract and to applicable U.S. product safety regulations?
Sending inspectors and sending samples to a laboratory for testing is usually a good idea. Otherwise, you are leaving things to chance and what you receive may not be what you specified.
(There are, of course, exceptions that are reasonable. If the supplier has a strong track record and they share their own QC data with you, for example, relaxing your inspection program is usually fine.)
6. What made you first suspect problems with the product? Did you at that time immediately cease importing them?
If you have a well-functioning monitoring system (inspection, testing, other reporting…) and your team is given a clear escalation process, you should become aware of safety-related issues when they start to be noticed. And you should probably have a plan to deal with them, as part of the risk mitigation plan I mentioned above.
7. What would it have cost you per unit to fix the problems?
If you know there is a safety-related issue and you don’t do proper containment of the problem, that’s bad. If the cost is not very high for your company, that’s even worse.
Now, as a buyer, what do you need to do in a proactive way?
I wrote about it before in Why YOU Need a Product Safety Program:
A product safety program would typically include:
Overview of related product safety regulations & standards
Analysis of the ‘human factors’: who will use the product, in what conditions and for what purpose, and how could they misuse it?
Successive reviews of, and actions about, product safety risks at each step of the development
A formal risk assessment plan – this is usually blended with a quality & reliability risk assessment
A quality assurance plan that includes compliance testing, reliability testing, product inspections, etc. and that targets all the high and medium risks across the supply chain (including at the material/component level)
Treatment of the residual risk (which hasn’t been eliminated) through user warnings etc.
How about you? Do you take these steps to assure product safety and keep yourself and your brand compliant? Let me know, please.
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