Inspect your imports: different quality standards pose a risk

For business owner Sander Bisseling, you cannot say imports without saying inspection. Without due diligence, the risk of things going wrong is simply too big. The importer recounts his own experiences, with experts Ties Coolen and Jasper Delisse weighing in on how inspections work and why they are useful.

“Our team knows the bikes in and out. We know exactly what we want and what we do not want. Then again, we do work with bikes day in, day out and are all passionate about BMXing. The same cannot be said of the producer.” Bisseling concisely explains why it makes sense for the producer to make the occasional mistake in manufacturing the specific items he needs. 

With his company Meybo, Bisseling sells all things BMX. “Our bike is in a state of constant development. We’re always tinkering and listen carefully to feedback from the athletes who use them. The 2021 model is the starting point for the 2022 bike. We update the designs and stay in close touch with the producer, and yet a lot can still go wrong in the run-up to the new launch. We might push through a change at the front of the bike and the producer could unilaterally implement the change at the back too.” 

Sander Bisseling

Co-owner Meybo Distribution

Sander Bisseling imports and sells all things BMX. For nearly 7 years, he was a fulltime BMX cyclist. Now he spends most of his time on the company he runs together with Jurg Meijer. It is a success: from a small family business, Meybo turned into an international player within a short time. His crowning achievement is the bike that helped Niek Kimmann win gold at the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021. 

  • 2000
  • Boekel
  • 5 employees
For me, there's no import without inspection. Too much can go wrong.

Bisseling would never import goods without inspecting them first, especially because his products are all custom made. And even then, things can still go wrong, Bisseling recalls: “I was sent a drawing of a change to a production machine and quickly accepted the changes without realising that much more would be changing. In the end, the jumpers I had ordered arrived with a completely different fit than before. Fortunately, we were able to return everything and have it adjusted.” 

Different standards 

If, like Bisseling, you import goods or want to start importing goods, you expect your products to meet certain quality standards. But do Asian suppliers have the same standards as us? Ties Coolen does not beat around the bush: “Quality standards are entirely different in Asia.”[Einde van tekstterugloop]Coolen runs QC China, Vietnam, India & Turkey, a business with its very own highly qualified quality engineers that performs quality inspections in 4 major production countries. 

Jasper Delisse, the owner of We R Asia also performs inspections in Asia and echoes Coolen’s thoughts. “North-European customers are the most demanding people you could imagine. At the same time, we are perhaps the least interesting audience for Chinese manufacturers, simply because they can produce much higher volumes for other parts of the world with lower quality standards. Of every 20 Chinese manufacturers, maybe 1 or 2 could meet our needs.” 

You can afford to gamble on a $3,000 order.

Both Coolen and Delisse stress how important it is to hash out every little detail in advance. Coolen: “Making clear arrangements in advance is a great way to avoid problems. The best thing to do is document every detail in a comprehensive purchasing contract: from the colour to the packaging.” 

Coolen and Delisse also recommend asking your supplier for a so-called golden sample: a perfect version of your product, exactly the way you want it. In the best possible case, the producer, inspector, and importer all get a golden sample. 

A waste of money? 

Running a business is inherently risky, but there are always things you can do to mitigate risks and alleviate concerns. Having your goods inspected prior to shipping will give you peace of mind, but it does come with a price tag. Pre-shipment inspections cost at least half a day and you have to pay for all expenses, time spent, and travel time. 

“You can afford to gamble on a $3,000 order, because you're taking a relatively small risk,” Coolen believes. “If you are importing goods with a value of $10,000 or $15,000 or more, a pre-shipment inspection will practically pay for itself.” 

Coolen knows that there are plenty of importers who ‘order blind’. “It goes well most of the time,” but Coolen still has plenty of reasons for preferring an inspection. “If the consignment does not meet your demands, your losses could be substantial. In fact, you might not even be able to sell your products. The shipping costs  will only compound your losses, and that’s before you factor in the potential loss of credibility. Because if your products aren’t up to par, you'll get bad reviews, if you’re able to sell them at all.” 

Another reason to opt for inspections is the nature of the production process, even if you manage to get it running smoothly. “Employee churn in China is currently a whopping 23.8%, increasing the risk that new hires make mistakes when manufacturing your products.” 

Big misses 

Anecdotal evidence of spectacular mess-ups is not hard to find. “Shirts with sleeves that are 30 centimetres too short, mouldy kitchen utensils stuffed into a box,” Coolen begins. 

And those are just the easy examples, Delisse continues: “We recently discovered an issue with a mirror that one of our customers had ordered. These mirrors are supposed to show videos, animations, and instructions so that users could take gym classes at home. Only our client's software wouldn’t run on the mirror.” Fortunately, the order could go ahead as planned after a single component was changed. “It was pretty much a best-case scenario: the inspection made a real difference and both the producer and importer were satisfied with the result.” 

Inspections in practice 

Having your goods inspected before they are shipped may help you avoid considerable losses, but when should you check the goods? And how does it work in practice? 

Before the production process even begins, you can check that the manufacturer is using the right raw materials and tools (first article inspection). During the production process, you can check for defects (during production check), and when your order is mostly ready you can check that you are getting what you ordered, which is also known as a pre-shipment inspection. “A qualified quality inspector will check whether the end product and packaging are up to scratch. These inspections are performed when your whole order has been produced and at least 80% has been packaged,” Coolen explains.

“What kind of inspection works best for you depends on many factors, such as your product. If you are in the fashion business or import gardening products, you may want to check that the production process itself is running smoothly. After all, it is important that your supplier meets the deadline and ships your order before the season starts.” 

Loading check 

You can even have your goods inspected while they are being loaded, also known as a container loading check. An inspector will see to it that your products are packaged properly and carefully loaded into a container, as well as checking that the container is up to par. This will tell you whether it complies with the International Convention for Safe Containers (CSC). “That's not a given,” says Coolen, who has seen that some importers will take any container they can get their hands on, especially with today’s massive container shortages. “We’ve come across dirty, wet, and defective containers that really wouldn’t be suitable for transporting TVs, for instance. Producers want to use every container they can find, because the last thing they want is to be left with lots of unsold product.” 

Producer audit 

In addition to inspections focusing on the production process and transportation, you can also have your manufacturer and the factory audited. A factory audit will tell you more about working conditions, the condition of the machinery in the factory, and whether your manufacturer’s environmental practice and sustainability policy is acceptable. Do you supply imported products to larger companies? Then you must be able to tell what working conditions they were produced under and their environmental impact.

How inspections work 

Inspections are performed by appointment. “The producer knows exactly how to ready the products for inspection, but inspectors obviously select a sample themselves,” Delisse stresses, before outlining what happens next with a practical example. “When we check bicycles, for example, we test the quality of the paint. From a height, the inspector drops a metal ball on the frame and checks whether the paint can handle the impact.” 

Some inspections are more complicated and require lab testing to determine whether the right alloy was used for a metal product or part. In other cases, goods may have to undergo lengthy tests. “Drawer slides, for instance, should be able to open and close at least 200,000 times without any defects.” 

Rejected goods 

To decide whether a product passes or fails, the inspector looks at the AQL. The Acceptance Quality Limit (AQL) is an international standard that provides a weighted judgment after an inspection. The producer will know how many products the inspector will check and how many minor and major errors they will accept. “Naturally, a scratch on packaging won’t be judged as harshly as a scratch on the TV screen itself,” Coolen explains. In addition to AQLs, importers can set their own requirements for an inspection. 

If the manufacturer passes the inspection, there is nothing to worry about and you will be the satisfied owner of a batch of brand-new products within a few weeks. If there are doubts or if the manufacturer fails the inspection, the importer decides what to do next. Quality Control and We R Asia both facilitate discussions about a potential solution, such as a new production run, a discount, repairs, or cancelling the order altogether. 

After a positive inspection, the inspector seals the container. Is the seal broken on arrival? Then you immediately know that something has happened to your shipment en route.