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Made in China - A question of Quality?

September 23, 2011

These days it is a fact that Chinese made goods are a feature of life in most Western countries.

Stroll into any store in America or Europe – from the eponymous small town Mom and Pop hardware store, to a faceless corporate mega-store – and you will likely be greeted by shelf upon shelf of Chinese made goods.

Indeed, in many places it is not unusual to find stores where up to 80% of the items on sales originate from a factory somewhere in China.

Even if the particular goods you are purchasing aren't Chinese made, the register that the clerk rings your purchase on up might well be. As might the clerk's shoes, uniform and wrist watch. Not to mention the light fixtures that you are standing under and the flooring that you are walking on. Chinese made goods are that common.

Unfortunately, while it is an inescapable fact that Chinese made goods are everywhere, it is also an inescapable fact that one of the main reasons that they are so ubiquitously is that they are typically priced far lower than competing products. Something that is often reflected in their quality.

Grim Realities?

As China-Watchers will tell you, Chinese made goods are often made by factory workers with only limited training and limited experience. They may even be making a different product every few months. This can be reflected in the quality of the things that they make. Corners may also be cut on the products themselves. Less care may be taken with both manufacturing and design in order to get a product to market faster, and for less. Lower quality materials may be used for each part of the product, and the parts themselves may be pared back to the lowest possible tolerances. Plastic parts  made thinner, metal parts adulterated, and fabrics cheap and rough. On top of this, levels of quality checking can also often be paired back. With checking of batches kept to a minimum, and checking of individual products likewise. Leading to clothes that fade or fall into holes, shoes that quickly wear out, electronics that are unreliable, and home wares that can almost be considered disposable.

Perceptions?

When these things have been taken into consideration, it is hardly surprising that Chinese made goods as a whole have a poor reputation in the West. They are seen as being cheap and low quality. Something that you buy, use, and then replace.

This poor reputation is not helped by the fact that when somebody in the West buys a trinket from a market stall or tourist stand, finds a “prize” in a box of cereal, or receives a promotional novelty item with their burger meal, it will invariably be “cheap”, and have been made in China. Further leading to Chinese products becoming associated with low quality.

While this reputation is accurate in many cases, it has also lead to the perception that all Chinese made goods are low quality.

More than this, it has lead to the perception – in the minds of many in the West - that China is incapable of producing high quality merchandise. With people coming to believe that Chinese workers are unskilled, that Chinese manufacturing techniques are – for want of a better work – primitive, and that Chinese companies are not advanced enough to manufacture quality products for others, lefty alone design quality products of their own.

Reality?

While it is true that Chinese companies do produce low quality goods en-mass, and that there are a great many factories in China that are geared up just to produce low quality goods for the lowest price possible, it would be a mistake to think that this is all that China can produce.

Indeed, it is often the case that Chinese factories make low quality goods because that is what they have been asked to make. With Western companies paying Chinese manufacturers to make products to a set price, and to a set quality. Which they, the Western company, has determined.

If there is a flaw in the design of a product it is often the case that it was present long before the Chinese manufacturer came on to the scene. And if the product's quality is low, it is often the case that the factory was simply producing to a standard that was set by somebody else.

A prime example of this was the 2007-2008 Mattel toy recall scandal, Chinese made childrens' toys were recalled after it was found that they contained powerful magnets that could become detached, and which may be easily swallowed. The recall was one of the largest of its type ever announced in the West, and involved almost 20 million individually boxed products.

At the time, the Western media was filled with headlines that read – in some form – “Recall of Dangerous Chinese toys”, and there was much criticism of Chinese manufacturers for “cutting corners”, and “sharp practices”. There were calls for a boycott of Chinese made products, and for increased regulatory scrutiny of imports from China.

A pole conducted by the Zogby International reported that almost 80% of respondents stated that they would think twice when looking at Chinese made goods (including non toy items). While just over 60% stated that they would consider boycotting Chinese goods until Beijing tightened the regulatory situation to bring Chinese manufacturers into line.

However, it was later announced that the defect that triggered the Mattel recall was a design flaw that was present in Mattel's original design, prior to its production in China. In essence, the recall would have been necessary regardless of whom had manufactured the toys.

More than this, it was found that the toy's design was several years old, and that had been signed off on in 2003, 2004 and 2005. With Western officials either not identifying the design flaw, or not considering it sufficiently serious enough to warrant recall or modification. The defect was finally formally identified as being a safety concern 2006, but the recall notice was not issued until Q4 in 2007.

Leaders within Mattel were forced to issue a full apology.

Mattel takes full responsibility for these recalls and apologizes personally to you, the Chinese people and all of our customers who received the toys

Thomas A. Debrowski, Executive Vice President, Worldwide Operations, Mattel

The apology included a statement clarifying that the recall was due to a design flaw, and that it was not related to the use of Chinese manufacturers, or sharp practices on their part.
“It is important for everyone to understand that the vast majority of these products that we recalled were the result of a flaw in Mattel's design, not through a manufacturing flaw in Chinese manufacturers.”

Thomas A. Debrowski

Indeed, according to a 2007 study by the University of Western Ontario approximately 77% of Chinese toy recalls between 1988 and 2007 were due to design faults. Over the study period, there were an average of 2.5 recalls per year due to manufacturing faults. Significantly less than the number for manufacturing issues. In three of the years studied there were no recalls attributed to manufacturing.
Toy companies develop a design in their home country, and then send it to a manufacturer in China along with specifications ... if the design is poor, the toys manufactured will definitely be faulty. Only toy companies can prevent problems associated with designs.

Toy Recalls - Is China Really the Problem?, University of Western Ontario (2007)

High Quality Chinese Goods?

Taking the above into account, many questions come to mind. However, one of the questions that is most relevant in the context of this document remains “if China can manufacture quality goods, why doesn't it?”

The answer to this is simple. China manufacturers high quality goods all of the time.

Probably the best example of this is the area of electronic.

Cheap Chinese made consumer electronics are everywhere. They have a reputation for poor performance, poor battery life, and for lacking the robust build and advanced features found in many more expensive Japanese and Korean products. However, quality Chinese made electronics are also common. People in the West use them all the time, often without realizing it.

One of the primary reasons for this lack of awareness is that Chinese manufacturers often do not sell high quality goods under their own brand names.

In some instances Chinese manufacturers produce high quality goods for foreign companies. The goods are based on foreign technology and are made using foreign designs, but they are manufactured to Western standards by Chinese labor. Cisco, Dell, Motorola, Intel, Hewlett Packard, IBM, all manufacture high end product in China. Equally, both the Apple iPod and iPad are manufacturer in China.

In other instances Chinese companies produce goods under their own names, using their own technology, in China. But have distribution deals with Western companies under which their products are rebranded for sale overseas, so that they can take advantage of having a name that Western consumers are more familiar with. And which is not associated with the low quality image of chines made goods.

Chinese companies also commonly provide the technology on which Western companies base services that are sold on to Western consumers. For example, 46 of the world's top 50 telecommunications providers use equipment from a single Chinese company.

Even the US military uses Chinese made electronics. Ranging from computer chips and networking equipment, to solar panels. In fact, the main obstacles preventing Chinese supplying more equipment to the US military are political, rather than technological. With fears over the so-called "China Threat", as well as "Buy America" provisions (Provisions that mandate goods be purchased based on their place of manufacture, rather than on their value and quality), being amongst the most significant issues.

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