Following a series of tighter consumer protection laws, makers are emphasizing product safety while contending with the high cost of compliance.
Faced with stricter safety regulations in key export destinations, companies in China are allocating more resources to product testing and emphasizing high-quality materials despite the pressure these are putting on manufacturing outlay.
For most suppliers, adopting complicated and far-reaching directives is not the main challenge, but the high expense of compliance is.
Many of the new safety standards require makers to conduct more tests on a greater number of chemical substances. As a result, certification fees for some products have risen by as much as 50 percent, and even doubled in a few cases. CPSIA evaluation for toys, for example, can cost up to $1,000 per model depending on the complexity of the design.
The average toy company now spends $60,000 to $100,000 on examination fees every year. One of the biggest toy makers in China pays more than $2.9 million annually on testing, much higher than the yearly revenue of small suppliers.
In many instances, fulfilling safety requirements involves replacing infringing materials with compliant substitutes.
Suppliers of food-grade products, for instance, have already stopped using BPA, an organic compound found in many plastics. In a range of consumer goods, further modifications include the shift from PVC to POE, and from PC to phthalate-free PES, glass and nontoxic silicone.
Battery makers are striving to develop or source safer anode and cathode materials. Some have begun to replace conventional lithium cobalt oxide formulation with lithium iron phosphate, an alternative with lower environmental impact. Other efforts are aimed at improving protection against overcharging, discharging and heating.
But in most instances, "safe" alternatives are costlier than the originals. 3P PVC for instance, is 30 percent more expensive than regular PVC but is 30 percent cheaper than 6P.
Similarly, A5-grade melamine goes for $2,200 per ton, three times as much as the same volume of the A1-grade variant at about $735.
In some cases, imported materials, which invariably cost more, are favored over domestic equivalents. Imported PP, for instance, is 20 to 30 percent higher than domestic versions, at $1,800 to $2,100 per ton. Overseas-sourced organic fabrics, likewise, are 20 to 30 percent more expensive than local variants.
Despite the high outlay, some companies prefer to source abroad for consistent quality. Foshan Geuwa Electric Appliance Co. Ltd sources 80 percent of materials and components for its blenders and juicers overseas, while the rest are purchased locally.
Besides higher raw material expenses, makers have to contend with increases in indirect costs, particularly those related with monitoring the supply chain to ensure that all manufacturing inputs meet specifications.
According to Tim Corrigan, president and CEO of the Quality Assurance Institute, "The root cause of the problem (of product quality) is control of the raw material, application contaminations and subfactories. To fix this requires an overhaul at many factories. The solution calls for significant transparency, diligence and dedication."
Generally, material vendors are able to offer third-party certification. But for those that cannot do so, companies need to send their own QC staff to supervise the production at the material suppliers' factories.
More exporters are now limiting their sourcing to suppliers that can provide certified inputs. Still, collection and documentation of every component utilized requires time, effort and money.
In addition to testing and materials quality, manufacturers are also enhancing their in-house QC facilities.
Lai On Products (Industrial) Ltd, a Hong Kong-owned maker of crayons, modeling clay and paint has set up a microbiological laboratory at its factory in Shenzhen, Guangdong province. Certified by the China National Accreditation Service for Conformity Assessment, the lab is comparable to a chemical-testing facility. The supplier also sends its products to third-party agencies to ensure compliance with ASTM D-4236 and F963, Toxicological Risk Assessment, EN 71, CPSIA, California Proposition 65 and REACH requirements.
Some baby stroller factories are now equipped with wheel performance, dynamic durability and drop-testing facilities. At the same time, many stuffed toys and children's garments makers are purchasing more needle detectors.
Any measure to comply with safety regulations undoubtedly adds to the cost of production. Suppliers estimate material and certification expenses have risen about 10 percent in recent months. Many companies try to absorb the additional expenditure, but this is not always feasible.
While investment in facilities can be recovered in the long term, the same cannot be said about testing fees. When order quantities are low, as in the current environment, makers are often unable to recover money spent on certification of specific models. Shorter product life cycles due to fast-changing customer preferences also give manufacturers a narrower time frame to recoup compliance outlay.
Some suppliers try to negotiate bigger orders or ask buyers to shoulder the cost for certification. But clients are averse to both options in view of the current economic conditions.
Typically, tier 1 manufacturers are able to comply with regulations more seamlessly due mainly to their stable financial resources.
"Enterprises that cater to major OEM customers likewise have the easiest time adjusting to the new rules as they have better access to information," said Cody Wang, chemical testing deputy general manager at Intertek. "They are usually able to make the necessary changes months in advance of enforcement deadlines."
But for small and midsize factories that have less capital to invest in equipment and prohibitive testing fees, conformance can be a daunting task.
Testers can also be partners
The professional testing industry is booming amid the rising safety trend. With the increased need for product evaluation, the past few years have seen an influx and expansion of third-party laboratories in China, including SGS, TÜV, BV, Morlab and Pony Test. These organizations also provide free training on the latest regulations, and inform companies on which merchandise needs testing and how.
Regulatory agencies in the US and the EU have likewise been active in helping suppliers get up to speed.
Workshops on the new EU Toy Safety Directive have been organized, with the support of the EU-China Trade Project and the Directorate-General for Enterprise and Industry of the European Commission.
In October 2009, the third CPSC-AQSIQ Summit was held in Wuxi, Jiangsu province. With a theme of "promoting best practices by Chinese manufacturers and US importers to maximize product safety", the summit was attended by CPSC chair Inez Tenenbaum.
In her keynote address, Tenenbaum reported that in fiscal year 2009, toy recalls went down to 40 from more than 80 in the preceding period. The information exchange between the CPSC and AQSIC about recalls of China-made goods was emphasized, as well as the need for frequent training sessions.
The AQSIQ has been educating China toy makers about safety requirements in the US and on strengthening quality controls. The CPSC has arranged to set up an office at the US embassy in Beijing to help promote compliance with US standards among local suppliers.
Local governments and trade organizations are also vigorously pushing companies to bolster the image of "made in China" products.
At the Canton Fair last fall, the Ministry of Commerce distributed export quality and safety manual to exhibitors.
Organizations such as the China Council for the Promotion of International Trade have been sponsoring seminars for business owners and local government officials on product safety in Southern China.
Regulations getting tougher
The safety bar that China suppliers must hurdle is getting higher by the year as new international and domestic standards are put into place.
In December 2009, the European Chemicals Agency announced the addition of 15 chemicals to its candidate list of substances of very high concern (SVHC) under REACH. Among the inclusions were diisobutyl phthalate, a commonly used plasticizer, and lead chromate, a coloring agent.
REACH has wide-ranging impact in the EU as it requires disclosure of information on hazardous substances contained in every product. The directive is on top of specific regulations such as RoHS for electronic goods, EN 71 for toys, and Regulation 1905/2004/EC for materials that come in contact with food.
For toy makers, the CPSIA/HR4040 in the US and the EU's New Toy Safety Directive or 2009/48/EC amend existing rules substantially and impose greater restrictions on suspicious chemicals. The latter regulation limits 19 metallic elements. It also bans 55 fragrant substances and warns against a further 11 types.
Other baby and children's products and toys must pass the standards for EN 71, CE, WEEE and EMC in the EU, ASTM-F963, CPSIA, FDA and UL in the US, AS/NZS/ISO 8124 in Australia and New Zealand, and ST2002 in Japan.
Following the US and EU's lead, Japan, Australia and even Malaysia are modifying their existing toy safety regulations, particularly on flammability and the use of phthalates and lead.
Lithium battery exporters have to comply with UL1642 for cells and UL2054 or FCC for battery packs in addition to EMC and RoHS. Designs shipped by air are also obligated to undergo UN38.3 testing. In markets where FCC, UL and RoHS approval are not necessary, passing the UN38.3 is sufficient.
For products that come in contact with food, companies have to comply with assorted standards such as UL, CB, CE, GS, ETL, CCC, FDA and LFGB. Most EU countries recognize Germany's LFGB because of its stricter requirements.
Aside from international regulations, suppliers have to follow domestic guidelines for a number of goods.
Garment trimming makers, for example, need to comply with three sets of requirements for cords and drawstrings to be used in children's clothing. Issued by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine, and Standardization Administration, the GB/T 22702-2008, 22704-2008 and 22705-2008 are based on US' ASTM F 1816-97(2004), the UK's BS 7907:1997 and EN 14682:2007, respectively.
In addition, some existing national standards for trimmings have been revised and now have provisions that monitor and prescribe allowable levels for harmful substances that are even lower than European regulations. The GB/T 17592, for example, keeps azo content at 20mg/kg whereas it is 30mg/kg in the EU's EN 14362.
Likewise, the China government issued a new standard for melamine-formaldehyde products used as food containers and packaging materials. This comes after several foreign markets banned low-end models due to potential chemical leaching.
The regulation seeks to ensure safety by prohibiting the use of urea formaldehyde resin as the main material. A1 and A3-grade melamine dinnerware pieces, which contain 70 to 90 percent of this substance, tend to melt at high temperatures and may cause a health hazard.
To ensure compliance with the safety code, the government has required suppliers to obtain a production license from the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection & Quarantine.